Month: December 2019

In France, American Scientists Are Trying to ‘Make Planet Great Again’

Carol Lee collaborates with University of Montpellier colleagues researching how tiny plankton cope in an ever-saltier Mediterranean sea and a freshwater-infused Baltic one. From the foothills of the French Pyrenees, Camille Parmesan experiments with cutting-edge climate modeling, hoping it may offer clues for future biodiversity conservation.

Both biologists have pulled up stakes from previous posts, counting among U.S. scientists who are responding to the Trump administration’s upcoming withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement with their feet.  

“I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” said Lee, citing colleagues who have headed to Europe and China. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”  

“I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” says Lee, pictured with a colleague. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”

Lee’s assessment follows numerous allegations that the U.S. government is undermining climate and other research on multiple fronts, from shrinking funding and shutting programs to diminishing science’s role in policymaking. Hundreds of scientists have left their jobs, according to a recent New York Times article, although it’s unclear how many have headed overseas.  

U.S. officials offer a different picture. A State Department statement issued ahead of December’s climate talks in Madrid, for example, said the government remained committed to research and innovation. It credited advances, ranging from renewables to “transformational” coal technologies, for allowing the United States to simultaneously reduce emissions, protect the environment and grow the economy.  

Yet these days Europe is more often seen as the climate leader. Still, it faces its own set of challenges. The European Union’s climate-fighting efforts vary sharply by member state, with countries like Poland still heavily reliant on coal.  

Moreover, a recent study by the European Investment Bank finds the EU must invest massively more in research and development to a meet a new and ambitious 2050 goal of zero net emissions. Indeed, it finds Europe lags behind the US and China in climate change mitigation investments as a share of GDP.  

French President Emmanuel Macron holds a sign with the slogan 'Make our planet great again' as he attends the 'Tech for Planet'…
French President Emmanuel Macron holds a sign with the slogan ‘Make our planet great again’ as he attends the ‘Tech for Planet’ event at the ‘Station F’ start-up campus ahead of the One Planet Summit in Paris on Dec. 11, 2017.

French grants

In France, Lee and Parmesan count among more than a dozen U.S. scientists benefiting from generous research grants under President Emmanuel Macron’s Make the Planet Great Again program, a direct rebuttal to Washington’s departure from the Paris pact. Yet Macron himself is criticized at home for failing to match climate-fighting rhetoric with action, while experts say French science overall is seriously underfunded.  

“It’s very clear there isn’t enough investment in France, and we’ll need to concentrate on this in the years to come,” says Stephane Blanc, who heads the MOPGA initiative, pointing however to upcoming legislation aimed to significantly boost research funding.  

Launched in mid-2017, Macron’s initiative — known more prosaically as MOPGA — offers three- to five-year matching grants of up to $1.7 million for cutting-edge environment research on areas that also include biodiversity loss and sustainable agriculture. American and formerly U.S.-based scientists dominate the 41 grantees, who also include French and other Europeans. Germany has rolled out a similar, but more modest initiative.  

“When Macron made that announcement, I thought ‘I’m applying for that,'” says Lee, who had previously collaborated with Montpellier University.  

Her grant of nearly $900,000 allows her to hire graduate students for research into how plankton can adapt to changes in salinity and temperature. Her two targets are witnessing diametrically opposite climate-affected impacts; while the Mediterranean is increasing in salinity, ice melt is injecting a mass of freshwater into the Baltic Sea that promises to decimate key local species like cod.  

“I’m looking at the base of the food chain, because that’s so important for maintaining everything — that’s the little guys, the copepods,” she says of the plankton.  

At home in Madison, Wisconsin, Lee launched a more personal climate change fight, going vegetarian and powering her house with wind. But she does not see enough action on a national level.  

“I feel like scientists are getting ignored in the United States, that what we say doesn’t matter right now, and that is incredibly distressing,” she says.  

In France, by contrast, she is confident her research will be published and widely disseminated.  

“Somebody is going to listen to us,” she says. “In Europe and elsewhere.”  

FILE - In this Sept.5 2017 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot meet…
FILE – In this Sept.5, 2017 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot meet with NGOs to discuss climate and environment at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Modeling change  

For Parmesan, France amounted a Eurostar train ride away from her previous research posting in Britain. During her career, she has given talks at the White House, testified before Congress and collected prestigious awards for her research, which includes helping to solidify the science behind the 2°C-degree global warming cap set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

“I think I’ve done my thing about the fact we need to reduce carbon emissions,” Parmesan says. “What I’m trying to do now is go more towards what we do about it.”

Today, she works at a French research station in the tiny southwestern commune of Moulis, trying to apply economic-style simulations to biodiversity conservation under a rapidly changing climate.  

“It’s really tricky, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “How do you come up with a conservation plan? What do you preserve and where to you preserve in the face of all this?”

She describes a recent slew of emissions and global warming records as yet more grim data points on a now-clear trajectory.  But she is alarmed the United States is not leading the response.  

“A lot of the best science has come out of the United States, but that’s going away,” she says.  

While some U.S. colleagues are staying put in their jobs, mindful of family and financial constraints, others are not, she says.  

“If they’re old enough they’re retiring, if they’re young enough they’re getting the hell out of there,” Parmesan said, adding a number are asking her about research options in Europe.  

She is worried about the future, but energized by the rising tide of youth climate activists.  

“Young people will see a tremendous degradation of their lifestyle — everyone who reads the science knows that,” Parmesan says. “So I’m really excited that age group is finally getting charged up, and demanding these older politicians do something.”


Documentary ‘Gift’ Looks Into the History of Sharing

The more you give, the richer you become that’s the philosophical idea behine the gift economy.  It’s an idea that’s catching on. At the famous Burning Man festival in Nevada for instance money has no worth. In his book “The Gift”, Lewis Hyde described this model in detail. Misha Gutkin looked into the whole idea.


Kim Jong Un Warns He is No Longer Bound by Self-Imposed Moratorium on Nuclear Tests

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he is longer bound by his self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests, warning of unspecified “shocking” action if the United States does not soften its stance in nuclear talks.  

Kim said there are no grounds to refrain from such tests as long as the U.S. continues conducting military drills and selling advanced weapons with and to South Korea, according to comments published Wednesday in the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).  

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or ICBM test in over two years. In April 2018, Kim announced his country “no longer need(s)” such tests. That decision helped pave the way for nearly two years of negotiations with the United States, which are now stalled.

People watch a TV screen showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, left, during…
People watch a TV screen showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, left, during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 31, 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has met with Kim three times, has said the North Korean leader personally promised to not resume ICBM or nuclear tests, though the two leaders never formalized that agreement. Trump has not yet responded to Kim’s comments.

“If Chairman Kim has reneged on the commitments he made to President Trump, that is deeply disappointing,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News. “He made those commitments to President Trump in exchange for President Trump agreeing not to conduct large-scale military exercises.”

In his comments Wednesday, Kim did not appear to formally abandon talks with the U.S., but did unveil a new, firmer stance toward negotiations with Washington.  

North Korea will continue developing its “powerful nuclear deterrent,” Kim said, warning of an unspecified “shocking actual action.”

“The DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.

“The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future,” Kim said, adding, “We cannot give up the security of our future just for the visible economic results.”

Kim may announce further details in a speech expected to be broadcast later on New Year’s Day. In his 2019 New Year’s speech, Kim warned he may take a “new way” unless the U.S. changes its approach to nuclear talks.

Stalled talks

At their first summit in June 2018, Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Since then, the two sides have not been able to agree on what that phrase means or how to begin working toward it.  

People watch a TV screen showing a file image of a ground test of North Korea's rocket engine during a news program at the…
FILE – People watch a TV screen showing a file image of a ground test of North Korea’s rocket engine during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 9, 2019.

Amid the stalled talks, North Korea in 2019 imposed an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer more concessions. U.S. officials dismissed the deadline as arbitrary and a negotiating tactic.  

On Wednesday, Kim accused the U.S. of intentionally prolonging the nuclear talks. But he also appeared to leave open the possibility that the talks could eventually result in some modification to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  
“The scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated, depending on the U.S. future attitude to the DPRK,” Kim was quoted as saying.  

“This is NOT shutting door on talks,” tweeted Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which produces the influential NK News website.

But the negotiations have already effectively been dead for months, Adam Mount, a North Korea expert at the Federation of American Scientists, pointed out.

“It’s possible they are willing to return to the table to negotiate a more modest arms control arrangement,” Mount said. “But in any event, we can expect a much tougher line that does not indulge the soaring expectations of the last years.”


Burundi Seeks 15-Year Jail Term for Journalists

Burundi prosecutors Monday sought 15-year jail terms for four reporters and their driver who were detained covering an incursion of rebels from Democratic Republic of Congo and charged with endangering state security.

The journalists were working for Iwacu, one of Burundi’s few independent media outlets, when they were arrested on Oct. 22.

A witness in the northwestern province of Bubanza, where they were arrested, told AFP on condition of anonymity the long jail terms were sought after two hours of deliberations.

The source said the prosecution based the hefty sentencing demand largely on a WhatsApp exchange of messages between one of the reporters and a colleague based abroad in which the former wrote: “We are heading for Bubanza … to help the rebels.”

A further demand was for the detained to be denied their civic rights for 20 years.

Judgment was stayed for one month.

“We had the time to assure our clients’ defense. We hope they will be acquitted purely and simply,” defense counsel Clement Retirakiza told reporters.

Police say at least 14 rebels from the Burundian RED-Tabara group, based across the border in eastern DR Congo, were killed in an attack the day the journalists were arrested.

The rebels say they killed a dozen security personnel.

Rights groups

The Reporters Without Borders NGO, which places Burundi a lowly 159th on its global list of press freedom, says those detained were simply doing their job. Human Rights Watch has called for their release.

Observers see the case against the four as a signal of toughness by the Burundi government just five months ahead of elections.

The country is currently mired in violent unrest sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza announcing in April 2015 he was controversially standing for a third term. He won re-election in July.


Ghosn Goes to Lebanon to Flee ‘Injustice’ in Japan

Former Nissan Motor Company chief Carlos Ghosn said Tuesday he had traveled to Lebanon to escape what he called “injustice and political persecution” in Japan where he faces multiple charges of financial misconduct.

“I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied, in flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold,” he said.

Ghosn has been arrested several times since first being detained in November 2018, but was free on bail. The conditions of his latest release required him to remain in Japan, and his statement Tuesday did not explain how he left.

Ghosn holds French, Brazilian and Lebanese citizenship.  His lawyer Junichiro Hironaka told reporters Tuesday that his legal team was still in possession of all Ghosn’s passports, and he said he was surprised to learn of Ghosn’s departure.

Ghosn has denied the charges against him.

Among the allegations are accusations he conspired to understate his Nissan income by about 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, and that a Nissan subsidiary diverted $2.5 million out of $5 million from an Oman dealership to a Ghosn-owned investment company for his private use.

Ghosn was credited for steering Nissan from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming one of the world top-selling automakers. He engineered a three-way alliance with one-time domestic rival Mitsubishi Motors and French-based Renault.


Volunteers Prepare Colorful Floats for Rose Parade

Volunteers are working around the clock preparing flower-decked floats for the annual Rose Parade, a New Year’s Day tradition. Hundreds of thousands of people line the parade route in Pasadena, California, on Wednesday, and millions more will watch on television.  Mike O’Sullivan reports on the preparations.


Judge Dismisses Impeachment Lawsuit From Ex-White House Aide

A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit from a former White House official who had challenged a congressional subpoena in the impeachment inquiry involving President Donald Trump.

Charles Kupperman, a former deputy national security adviser, sued in October after being subpoenaed by House Democrats to testify in their impeachment investigation into Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. He had asked a judge to decide whether he had to comply with that subpoena from Congress or with a conflicting directive from the White House that he not testify.

Both the House of Representatives, which withdrew the subpoena, and the Justice Department, which had said it would not prosecute Kupperman for contempt of Congress for failing to appear, had asked the court to dismiss the case as moot.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon agreed Monday in throwing out the case. He noted that the House had stated explicitly that it would not reissue a subpoena to Kupperman and had not mentioned him by name in an impeachment article this month that accused Trump of obstructing Congress and its investigation.

“This conduct is of course entirely consistent with the repeated representations that counsel for the House has made to this Court,” Leon wrote. “The House clearly has no intention of pursuing Kupperman, and his claims are thus moot.”

FILE – Former National Security Adviser John Bolton gestures while speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Sept. 30, 2019.

The lawsuit was closely watched since it was a rare challenge of a congressional subpoena in the impeachment inquiry and because of the potential implications it carried for another witness whose testimony has been highly sought by Democrats: former national security adviser John Bolton.

Kupperman and Bolton have the same lawyer. Bolton was not subpoenaed by the House but, as a senior adviser to the president on matters of national security, had similar arguments at his disposal. Senate Democrats have identified Bolton as among the current and former Trump administration officials they would like to hear from in a trial.

Charles Cooper, a lawyer for Bolton and Kupperman, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Though Leon said he did not need to resolve Kupperman’s case now, he acknowledged that the conflict could potentially resurface.

“Have no doubt though, should the winds of political fortune shift and the House were to reissue a subpoena to Dr. Kupperman, he will face the same conflicting directives that precipitated this suit,” Leon wrote.

“If so, he will undoubtedly be right back before this Court seeking a solution to a Constitutional dilemma that has long-standing political consequences: balancing Congress’s well-established power to investigate with a President’s need to have a small group of national security advisors who have some form of immunity from compelled congressional testimony,” Leon wrote.


Serial Killer Phillip Jablonski Dies on California Death Row

A serial killer whose five victims included two wives has died on California’s death row, authorities said Monday.

Phillip Carl Jablonski, 73, was found unresponsive in his San Quentin State Prison cell on Friday and pronounced dead within minutes. His cause of death is awaiting an autopsy, but he had been assigned a single cell, said corrections department spokeswoman Terri Hardy.

A San Mateo County jury sentenced him to death in 1994 for the first-degree murders of his wife, Carol Spadoni, 46, and her mother, Eva Petersen, 72.

Spadoni had married him while he was in prison for murdering a previous wife in 1978.

It was the latest in what court records say was a long history of violence against multiple women, dating to his trying to kill his first wife in the 1960s. At the time he was an Army sergeant who had served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War before he was discharged in 1969 for a “schizophrenic illness.”

He pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder, assault and attempted rape of his second wife, Melinda Kimball, in 1978.

He was paroled for good behavior in 1990, despite having tried to strangle his mother with a shoelace during a prison visit in 1985.

Authorities said they recovered a cassette tape in which he then described fatally shooting, stabbing and mutilating Spadoni and her mother, and raping her mother after she was dead.

He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but a jury found he was sane at the time.

Jablonski was also implicated in the deaths of two other women that same year, Fathyma Vann of Indio, California, and Margie Rogers of Thompson Springs, Utah.

Vann was attending the same community college as Jablonski at the time. 

Rogers and her husband co-owned a store along Interstate 70 where she was found dead.


Woman Sues Epstein Estate, Says She Was 14 During Encounter

A woman who says she was 14 when she had a sexual encounter with financier Jeffrey Epstein at his mansion sued his estate in  Florida court on Monday  for coercion, inflicting emotional distress and battery.

The lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County asks for an undisclosed amount of money. The lawsuit doesn’t give the woman’s name, and only refers to her as “JJ Doe.”

The woman went to Epstein’s Florida mansion in 2003 when she was “a vulnerable child without adequate parental support,” the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, the teenager was first approached by another teenage girl who offered her $200 to give Epstein a massage at his mansion. At the mansion, she was led to a bedroom where there was a massage table and oils. Epstein entered the room in a towel, laid on the table and instructed her to take off her clothes as she massaged him, the lawsuit said.

“Out of fear, plaintiff complied with Jeffrey Epstein’s commands,” the lawsuit said.

Epstein then pinched the teenager’s nipples, fondled her, touched her between her legs and masturbated, the lawsuit said.

“During the encounter, plaintiff resisted Jeffrey Epstein’s advances and demands, yet was assured if she complied, then he would stop and it would end soon,” the lawsuit said

Darren Indyke, an attorney for the estate, didn’t return an email inquiry for comment.

More than a dozen lawsuits are seeking millions of dollars in compensation for women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, sometimes for years, at his homes in Manhattan, Florida, New Mexico, the Virgin Islands and Paris.

Epstein, 66, killed himself in his New York City prison cell in August after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges. The wealthy financier had pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing girls as young as 14 and young women in New York and Florida in the early 2000s. In lawsuits, women say the abuse spanned decades.


Chinese Pastor Wang Yi Given 9 Year Sentence on State Subversion

Chinese pastor Wang Yi, founder of Early Rain Covenant Church, has been sentenced to nine years in prison on the charges of inciting state subversion and illegal business operation, a court in Sichuan in southwest China said on Monday.

One year after his incommunicado detention and a recent secret trial, Wang has also been deprived of his political rights for three years with 50,000 yuan ($7,157) of his personal property being confiscated, the announcement on the court’s website added.

The court, however, gave no details of its so-called “open” trial, which Wang allegedly faced last week.

Religious rights activists called Wang’s verdict the harshest in a decade, which paints a bleak picture of China’s government-led persecution of religious groups under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Wang was among dozens of the church’s followers and leaders including his wife detained by police in December 2018 although most were subsequently released.

The 46-year-old pastor is also a productive writer, social activist and formerly a legal scholar at Chengdu University before he took up the pastorate.

According to Bob Fu, founder of China Aid, a Texas, U.S.-based Christian human rights group which promotes religious freedom and rule of law in China, Wang’s sentence is the longest against an ethnic Chinese house church leader in a decade, prior to which, Uyghur house church leader Alimujiang Yimiti from Xinjiang was given a 15-year sentence in 2008.

“This demonstrates President Xi’s regime is determined to be the enemy of the universal values and the religious freedom,” Fu said.

“It shows the regime is very afraid of pastor Wang Yi’s national and international impact based on his reformed evangelic movement,” he added.

Under Xi, China has intensified its crackdown on unsupervised religious followers be it Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists.

In the past few years, authorities there have not only jailed pastors, but also closed churches and taken down thousands of crosses and, in some places, there is a push to ensure that anyone under the age of 18 cannot attend church or be under the influence of religion – what Fu called the worst religious persecution since the Cultural Revolution.

China is officially atheist, but says it allows religious freedom.

And Wang’s church is one of China’s best-known unregistered Protestant “house” churches, deemed illegal under Chinese laws, which require all places of worship to register and submit to government oversight.

In other words, criminal charges against Wang can apply to all other unregistered church leaders and goers, which observers say is sending another chilling effect on Chinese religious believers

“He [Wang] is a martyr who suffers the persecution… The chilling effect was there because many people will be deterred, not to speak up. But those who really are fighting hard for their own faith, for their own religion, will not bend,” said Sang Pu, a commentator in Hong Kong.

Sang said that many church goers are finding new places or new ways to worship in spite of the Chinese government’s crackdown.

Analysts have long argued that China’s Communist Party will have a hard time suppressing Christians in China as Yang Feggang of Purdue University once estimated that the country’s population of Christians has unstoppably grown ten-fold from six millions in 1980 to more than 67 million in 2010.

Yang estimated that China will turn out to have the world’s largest population of more than 247 million Christians in 2030.

Rights activists, in addition, denounced Wang’s trial, saying that the pastor has been deprived of due legal proceedings and representation.

They said that Wang likely stood trial secretly on December 26th when no one from his family was notified or present at the court.

His former lawyer Zhang Peihong, originally hired by Wang’s parents to represent him, had been replaced by two government-appointed lawyers in November.

“Those who do evil will be in trouble. You’re not keeping a criminal behind bars. Instead, you’re crowning a righteous man!” Zhang posted Monday on Facebook, which is banned in China, apparently writing about Wang’s case.

Since June, Wang’s wife Jiang Rong has been out on “bail” after being detained alongside her husband during the initial raid on the church.

But both she, their son and Wang’s parents are still under close surveillance by state security police, according to Fu.

“Jiang Rong is staying in a public security-arranged apartment and their 13-year-old son is not allowed even to have freedom to meet with his own mom and grandparents,” Fu said, adding that “every day, he has to take a police car to go to school and being picked up by the police. No freedom at all.”


Sudan Sentences 27 to Death for Torturing, Killing Protester

A court in Sudan on Monday sentenced 27 members of the country’s security forces to death for torturing and killing a detained protester during the uprising against Sudan’s longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir earlier this year.

The death of protester Ahmed al-Khair, a school teacher, while in detention in February was a key point — and a symbol — in the uprising that eventually led to the military’s ouster of al-Bashir. Monday’s convictions and sentences, which can be appealed, were the first connected to the killings of protesters in the revolt.

FILE – Protesters rally against police violence in Khartoum, Sudan, Sept. 23, 2019.

Last December, the first rally was held in Sudan to protest the soaring cost of bread, marking the beginning of a pro-democracy movement that convulsed the large African country. That led, in April, to the toppling by the military of al-Bashir, and ultimately to the creation of a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that has committed to rebuilding the country and promises elections in three years.

The anniversary of that protest this month drew teeming crowds to the streets in several cities and towns across the country, with people singing, dancing and carrying flags. A train packed with exuberant demonstrators, clapping and chanting, arrived in the northern city of Atbara, the birthplace of the uprising, from the capital, Khartoum.

Monday’s verdict in the trial of the security forces took place in a court in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city, where dozens of protesters had gathered outside the courtroom, demanding justice for al-Khair.

Al-Khair was detained on Jan. 31 in the eastern province of Kassala and was reported dead two days later. His body was taken to a local hospital where his family said it was covered in bruises. At the time, police denied any police wrongdoing and blamed his death on an “illness,” without providing any details.

The court, however, said on Monday that the teacher was beaten and tortured while in detention. The 27 sentenced were policemen who were working in the jail where al-Khair was held or intelligence agents in the region.

FILE – Sudan’s former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir stands guarded inside a cage at the courthouse where he is facing corruption charges, in Khartoum, Sudan, Aug. 19, 2019.

Also this month, a court in Khartoum convicted al-Bashir of money laundering and corruption, sentencing him to two years in a minimum security lockup. The image of the former dictator in a defendant’s cage sent a strong message, on live TV for all of Sudan.

The deposed ruler is under indictment by the International Criminal Court on far more serious charges of war crimes and genocide linked to his brutal suppression of the insurgency in the western province of Darfur in the early 2000s. The military has refused to extradite him to stand trial in The Hague.

Amnesty International and other rights groups have called on the new government to hold security forces accountable for killing scores of people in their efforts to stifle protests against military rule, especially those behind a deadly crackdown on a huge sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum last June.

Since last December, nearly 200 protesters have been killed in Sudan. The government recently appointed independent judges to oversee investigations into the killings, a major achievement for the protest movement.

Sudan is under heavy international and regional pressure to reform. With the economy on the brink, the new government has made it a mission to get Sudan removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism so that it can attract badly needed foreign aid.




Turkey Detains 124 Suspected of Links to IS Group

Police in Turkey detained at least 124 people suspected of links to the Islamic State group, the state-run news agency reported Monday, in an apparent sweep against the militant group ahead of New Year celebrations.

At least 33 foreign nationals were detained in the capital Ankara in a joint operation by anti-terrorism police and the national intelligence agency, according to the Anadolu Agency.  In Istanbul, police raided 31 houses, detaining 24 suspects, including four foreign nationals.

Police conducted simultaneous, pre-dawn raids in the city of Batman, in southeast Turkey, where 22 suspects were detained, it said in a separate report. Raids were also conducted in the cities of Adana, Kayseri, Samsun and Bursa where 45 people, including six foreign nationals were detained.

Anadolu said the IS suspects apprehended in Ankara were from Iraq, Syria and Morocco. Police were searching for some 17 other suspects, the report said.

The country was hit by a wave of attacks in 2015 and 2016 blamed on IS and Kurdish militants that killed over 300 people.

The IS group also claimed responsibility for an attack at an Istanbul nightclub during New Year celebrations in the early hours of 2017. The attack killed 39 people, most of them foreigners.

Meanwhile, Turkey deported a total of 778 IS or other jihadists back to their home countries in 2019, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Sunday.

Turkey has stepped up its efforts to expel foreign fighters back to their countries of origin in recent months, accusing many European countries of not taking responsibility for their nationals and saying Turkey was “not a hotel” for foreign fighters.




North Korea May Force Trump to Change Course in 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump regularly says his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remains positive. But Trump may soon have little choice but to change his approach toward Kim, who within days may unveil a new, hardline policy toward the United States. 

Kim, who has given the U.S. an end-of-year deadline for nuclear talks, is set to deliver a New Year’s Day speech that may give major clues about North Korea’s direction in 2020. Kim is also presiding over a symbolically important meeting of the country’s ruling party this week.

While no one is sure what Kim will announce – there is always a possibility of a last-minute breakthrough in talks – North Korea has strongly hinted it will raise pressure on Trump in the new year, and Kim has vowed to take his country a “new way” if talks with the United States don’t advance.

Over the past several months, North Korea has threatened to resume intercontinental ballistic missile tests or other major provocations, even warning of an unspecified “Christmas gift” to the U.S. that so far remains undelivered. 

Trump has shown an unusual tolerance for North Korean provocations, at least by the standards of other recent U.S. presidents. But as evidence mounts that Trump’s personal outreach to Kim is not leading to progress in nuclear talks, many Trump critics and allies are calling for him to change course.
“From no angle – policy or political – does it make sense for Trump to keep things as they are,” said Rebecca Heinrichs, who focuses on nuclear deterrence and missile defense at the conservative Hudson Institute. 

The apparent launching of projectiles that, according to military officials in Japan and South Korea, landed in the sea between…
This undated picture released by North Korea’s Central News Agency on Oct. 31, 2019, purportedly shows the launch of projectiles that landed in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

Change how?

The question is whether Trump should become more or less conciliatory.

Heinrichs, who has defended aspects of Trump’s unorthodox outreach to Kim, says the United States should expand sanctions on North Korea and reinstate U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which were scaled back to preserve the talks.

“In the course of giving Kim diplomatic space, sanctions enforcement and readiness with regional allies have slipped while Kim’s nuclear program and image have improved,” she says.

“The whole approach is on the thinnest ice.”

Another ideological camp prefers a less aggressive approach. They say there’s no evidence sanctions will convince Kim to give up his nuclear program, but will only further raise tensions.

Instead, Trump should work toward an interim deal, in which the United States offers limited sanctions relief, a formal suspension of military exercises, or both, possibly in exchange for a permanent moratorium on North Korean ICBM and nuclear tests, said Joshua Pollack, a North Korea researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“We’ve repeatedly suspended combined military exercises in South Korea, so why not finally put them on the table?” asks Pollack. “Then the two sides could take their time in talks.”

It’s not clear North Korea would accept an interim agreement. The country’s ambassador to the United Nations earlier this month declared that denuclearization is off the negotiating table and that talks with the United States are no longer needed. 

South Korean marine's amphibious assault vehicles sail to shores in a smoke screen for landing during the U.S.-South Korea joint landing military exercises as a part of the annual joint military exercise Foal Eagle between South Korea and the United
FILE – South Korean amphibious assault vehicles participate in a 2015 U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise.

Trump downplays threats

There’s also not much evidence Trump is committed to drastic change in either direction.

Trump has rarely discussed North Korea in recent months, and when he has, it’s mainly been to stress his good relationship with Kim.

Asked about North Korea’s threat to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the U.S., Trump responded: “Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”

Trump refused to criticize North Korea as it conducted 13 rounds of short-range missile tests in 2019, though the launches violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and threatened U.S. troops and allies in the region.

For Trump, North Korean provocations are potentially embarrassing, in part because he has already claimed to have solved the problem.

After their first meeting in Singapore, Trump said he knew “for a fact” that Kim would return home and start a process that would “make a lot of people very happy and very safe.”

“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump tweeted while returning from the summit.

U.S. officials, including Trump, have also repeatedly insisted that Kim agreed in Singapore to give up his nuclear weapons, though in reality the joint statement referenced the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” – a much vaguer description that indicates unspecified concessions from each side.

By one estimate, North Korea has produced material for about 10 more nuclear bombs since Singapore, meaning it now has enough for around 40 total bombs.

A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019 and released Apri...
A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019.

Would Trump admit defeat?

But Heinrichs insists it’s not too late for Trump to modify his North Korea policy, and that doing so doesn’t have to be a great political embarrassment.

“I don’t think he needs to or will say the approach failed,” Heinrichs says. “It’s more likely he’ll blame Kim and the previous (U.S.) administrations for passing along the compounding problem.”

Whereas Trump’s comments about Kim have been widely mocked in Washington for being contradictory or inaccurate, Heinrichs sees it differently. Such comments, she says, are an attempt to flatter Kim – essentially to soften him up for a big agreement. And Trump’s approach, she says, could easily be reversed. 

“Any other president would have a hard time going from ‘fire and fury’ to nice letters to a return to max pressure…I don’t think it would be as much of a challenge for Trump,” Heinrichs said. 

“He seems to be immune to the pressure of convention. Sometimes that creates rare openings for good things and sometimes it results in enormous headaches,” she added. 

 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reads a letter from U.S. President Donald Trump, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, June 22, 2019.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reads a letter from U.S. President Donald Trump, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this picture released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, June 22, 2019.

A bullet-point win? 

Others say Trump, a former reality television star and self-styled master negotiator, appears to be looking for a legacy-defining win on North Korea and won’t easily change course. 

“Absolutely he can’t admit failure,” said Pollack. “But he can spin it away.” 

According to Gwenda Blair, a Trump family biographer who has followed Trump’s real estate and other deals for decades, Trump has often prematurely declared victory or attempted deals even when victory is impossible.

“He wants to be able to do something that’s like a moonshot,” said Blair.

For Blair, Trump’s desire to reach a nuclear deal with North Korea – which has eluded U.S. diplomats for decades – is much like Trump’s recently declared wish to buy Greenland.

“This would be adding the biggest thing since Alaska,” she says. “But no one was interested in selling.”

So what will Trump do if Kim never agrees to denuclearize? Trump himself foreshadowed such a scenario in his post-summit press conference in Singapore.

“Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,'” Trump said, before adding: “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”


2019 Was Hottest Year on Record for Russia

This year was the hottest ever registered in Russia, the country’s weather chief said on Monday, as climate change pushes global temperatures to record highs.

“This year in Russia was the hottest for the entire period of instrumental observations,” the head of the Gidromedtsentr weather service, Roman Vilfand, told Russian news agencies.

He said Moscow’s average temperature for 2019 had hit 7.6-7.7 degrees Celsius (45.7-45.9 degrees Fahrenheit), beating the previous record by 0.3 degrees.

Weather records have been kept since 1879 in Moscow and since 1891 in Russia as a whole.

Global warming has sent temperatures rising around the world, with the United Nations saying earlier this month that 2019 was on course to be one of the three hottest years on record.

Known for its notoriously harsh winters, Moscow has seen its warmest December in a century this year.

While some flurries fell on Monday, the Russian capital — normally covered with a blanket of snow by mid-December — saw a largely snowless and cloudy last month of the year.

The city’s ski resorts were closed and spring buds were beginning to show on trees — three or more months too early.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been reluctant to acknowledge the link between human activity and global warming.

At his traditional year-end annual news conference earlier this month, Putin insisted that “nobody knows” the causes of climate change.

But he acknowledged the consequences of global warming could be catastrophic for a country that is one of the world’s biggest producers of carbon fuel and with a fifth of its land within the Arctic circle.

Putin said that the rate of warming for Russia was 2.5 percent higher than elsewhere on the planet.

And “for our country, this process is very serious,” he said.





US: Military Strikes Target Militia in Deadly Iraq Attack

The U.S. carried out military strikes in Iraq and Syria targeting a militia blamed for an attack that killed an American contractor, a Defense Department spokesman said Sunday.

U.S. forces conducted “precision defensive strikes” against five sites of Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

The U.S. blames the militia for a rocket barrage Friday that killed a U.S. defense contractor at a military compound near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.

Officials said attackers fired as many as 30 rockets in Friday’s assault.

The Defense Department gave no details immediately on how the strikes were conducted. It said the U.S. hit three of the militia’s sites in Iraq and two in Syria, including weapon caches and the militia’s command and control bases.

Hoffman said the U.S. strikes will weaken the group’s ability to carry out future attacks on Americans and their Iraqi government allies.

Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades, a separate force from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, operate under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Many of them are supported by Iran.

A senior member of the Popular Mobilization Forces, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said at at least 12 fighters with the Hezbollah Brigades had died in U.S. strikes along the Iraq and Syria border. His account could not immediately be independently confirmed.




White House: Lots of ‘Tools’ to Respond to Potential North Korea Missile Test

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said Sunday he did not want to speculate about North Korea and its threat of “Christmas gift,” but added the U.S. would be “very disappointed” if Pyongyang tested a long-range or nuclear missile.

During an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” O’Brien said the country would take appropriate action as a leading military and economic power if North Korea went ahead with such a test.

O’Brien added Washington has many “tools in its tool kit” to respond.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in this undated photo released on Dec. 28, 2019 by North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

“We’ll reserve judgment but the United States will take action as we do in these situations,” he said. “If Kim Jong Un takes that approach we’ll be extraordinarily disappointed and we’ll demonstrate that disappointment.”

North Korea had warned of a “Christmas gift” if the U.S. didn’t meet an end of year deadline to soften its stance on nuclear talks that have been stalled since February

U.S.  officials  have been on alert for a potential long-range missile test since the North Korean warning.  

Though Christmas holiday has passed and North Korea did not deliver the so-called “Christmas gift” to the United States,  U.S.-North Korea tensions appear far from resolved.

North Korea’s nuclear program was the “most difficult challenge in the world” when President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, O’Brien told ABC News.

He also suggested that Trump’s strategy of “face-to-face” diplomacy may have forced North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to reconsider.

Talks about North Korea’s denuclearization have been largely deadlocked since a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi collapsed at the start of this year.





Kremlin: Putin Thanks Trump for Help Thwarting Terrorist Act

The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a telephone conversation initiated by the Russian side, has thanked U.S. President Donald Trump “for information transmitted via the special services that helped prevent the commission of terrorist acts in Russia.”

There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S. side.

The call also reportedly included discussion of “a set of issues of mutual interest,” according to the official Kremlin website.

Both leaders, Putin’s office said, agreed “to continue bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”

No other details were provided.



Monitoring Agency: DRC Ebola Death Toll 2,231 to Date

A total of 2,231 people have died out of 3,373 declared cases of Ebola in the current epidemic in the DR Congo, according to the agency overseeing the response, health officials said Sunday.

Deadly unrest in the fragile state has hampered the fight against the disease during the latest epidemic, which broke out on August 1, 2018, with the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri particularly badly hit.

Both areas, beset by violence for two decades, have seen repeated attacks on Ebola health workers by dozens of armed groups as well as on health sites set up to treat victims.

More than 200 civilians have been killed in the troubled east since November in clashes blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia group of Ugandan origin which officials blame for a string of massacres in recent weeks.

Health authorities meanwhile said Sunday that 341 suspected Ebola cases were being investigated, a day after the Multisectoral Committee for Epidemic Response (CMRE) monitoring the disease unveiled its latest batch of data Saturday.

The current epidemic is the tenth overall and the second deadliest on record since a 2014-16 outbreak struck west Africa, killing more than 11,300.