The Senate’s top Democrat called on the U.S. government Sunday to step up its efforts to investigate the deaths of Americans who traveled to the Dominican Republic and is asking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to get involved.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agency should step in to lend investigative support to the FBI and local law enforcement officials after at least eight Americans died in the Dominican Republic this year. Family members of the tourists have called on authorities to investigate whether there’s any connection between the deaths and have raised the possibility the deaths may have been caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides.
The ATF – the agency primarily investigates firearms-related crimes but is also charged with regulating alcohol and tobacco – is uniquely positioned to provide technical and forensic expertise in the investigation, Schumer said. The agency also has offices in the Caribbean.
“Given that we still have a whole lot of questions and very few answers into just what, if anything, is cause for the recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, the feds should double their efforts on helping get to the bottom of things,” Schumer said in a statement to The Associated Press.
An ATF spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Francisco Javier Garcia, the tourism minister in the Dominican Republic, said earlier this month that the deaths are not part of any mysterious wave of fatalities but instead are a statistically normal phenomenon that has been lumped together by the U.S. media. He said autopsies show the tourists died of natural causes.
Five of the autopsies were complete as of last week, while three were undergoing further toxicological analysis with the help from the FBI because of the circumstances of the deaths.
Israel’s prime minister says the Palestinians are “determined to continue the conflict at any price.”
Speaking at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was referring to the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of last week’s Mideast peace conference in Bahrain aimed at providing economic assistance.
Netanyahu says while Israel welcomed the U.S.’s $50 billion Palestinian development plan, the Palestinians themselves denounced it and even arrested a Palestinian businessman who participated in it.
Netanyahu says, “This is not how those who want to promote peace act.”
Palestinian forces have since released businessman Saleh Abu Mayala.
The Palestinian Authority accuses the Trump administration of being biased toward Israel and has boycotted it since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. They accuse the U.S. of trying to replace Palestinian statehood with money.
Cambodia’s recent deportation of four indigenous Montagnard asylum-seekers back to their home country has raised concerns about the safety of returnees and the plight of the indigenous group in Vietnam.
The Cambodian government deported the four in mid-June after one of them requested to return to Vietnam to be with his family and the others were deemed to be ineligible for asylum status.
But there is concern among rights activists that the Montagnards, a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, could face harsh treatment upon their return. Rights activists say the mistreatment stems from the indigenous group’s historic alliance with the United States military during the Vietnam War, its fight for land rights and protest against communist rule, and its religious beliefs.
Vietnam’s government “systematically harasses and abuses the rights of those they believed to be leaders in a community or religion,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Phil Robertson. As the areas they lived in were remote, it was difficult for independent organizations to monitor the situation, he said.
“There’s no doubt that all four will face very serious interrogation by Vietnam authorities when they return,” he said. “These Montagnards are not just at risk of persecution, they are just about certain to face persecution when they return. The only question will be how rough the Vietnam authorities get with them.”
Robertson said the harassment could take the form of restrictions of movement, potential physical abuse, interrogations, and surveillance. It is a concern shared by some refugees.
“l’m feeling very worried about facing pressure threat from the Vietnamese government,” a refugee in Cambodia, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, told VOA. He had fled Vietnam after he was arrested for having protested religious discrimination and being persecuted on religious grounds. He said he was under constant surveillance in Vietnam before he fled the country. “When I want to go somewhere they follow me,” he said. “So l’m very afraid.”
Hundreds of Montagnards are estimated to have fled to Cambodia since 2015 for alleged religious and political persecution. Since then, some have been sent to other countries, such as the Philippines, while others were deported.
Grace Bui, executive director of Bangkok-based Montagnard Assistance Project, said that losing contact with returnees posed a real risk. “Many Montagnards were sent back from Cambodia and we haven’t heard from many of them,” she said in a message. “For example, one guy who was returned last year tried to contact the U.N. to let them know how the police abused him upon his return. The police took his phone away. Many got beaten up, some were being harassed every day and some went to prison,” she said.
The Vietnamese government was unavailable for comment.
But Vietnam is not alone in contributing to human rights breaches, Robertson said. With the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR having found third countries that would accept the Montagnards, Cambodia would just have to issue exit permits, he said — something he said Cambodia refused to do due to pressure from Vietnam.
“UNHCR is working with the Cambodian authorities to seek solutions for them. Resettlement under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them as refugees with permanent residence status,” said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR senior regional public information officer.
The refugee interviewed by VOA said he is worried about being deported to Vietnam soon. Yet, he hasn’t given up hope that he and the others would be allowed to move to another country after years in limbo.
A leader in the fight for health benefits for emergency personnel who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. has died.
Former New York City Police detective Luis Alvarez died from colorectal cancer Saturday, his family announced in a post On Facebook.
The 53-year-old Alvarez appeared with American comedian and political activist Jon Stewart before a House Judiciary subcommittee on June 11 to appeal for an extension of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund.
A frail Alvarez told the panel, “This fund is not a ticket to paradise, it’s to provide our families with care.” He went on to say “You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t.”
Alvarez was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. His illness was traced to the three months he spent searching for survivors in the toxic rubble of the World Trade Center’s twin towers that were destroyed in the terrorist attacks.
He was admitted to a hospice on Long Island, New York within a few days of his testimony in Washington.
Legislation to replenish the $7.3 billion compensation fund that provides health benefits to police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders passed the full committee unanimously.
The federal government opened the fund in 2011 to compensate responders and their families for deaths and illnesses that were linked to exposure to toxins. Current projections indicate the fund will be depleted at the end of 2020.
Other responders who spent weeks at the site have also been diagnosed with A variety of cancers and other illnesses.
The World Trade Center Health Program, a separate program associated with a fund run by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said more than 12,000 related cases of cancer had also been diagnosed as of May.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday vowed to appeal a U.S. judge’s ruling blocking his administration from using $2.5 billion in funds intended for anti-drug activities to construct a wall along the southern border with Mexico.
“[W]e’re immediately appealing it, and we think we’ll win the appeal,” Trump said during a press conference on Saturday at a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies in Osaka, western Japan.
“There was no reason that that should’ve happened,” Trump said.
Trump has sought to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but has so far proven unsuccessful at receiving congressional approval to do so.
In February, the Trump administration declared a national emergency to reprogram $6.7 billion in funds that Congress had allocated for other purposes to build the wall, which groups and states including California had challenged.
U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam in Oakland, California said in a pair of court decisions on Friday that the Trump administration’s proposal to transfer Defense Department funds intended for anti-drug activities was unlawful.
One of Gilliam’s rulings was in a lawsuit filed by California on behalf of 20 states, while the other was in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in coordination with the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
“These rulings critically stop President Trump’s illegal money grab to divert $2.5 billion of unauthorized funding for his pet project,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “All President Trump has succeeded in building is a constitutional crisis, threatening immediate harm to our state.”
Since Portugal’s colony of Macau reverted to Chinese control in 1999, it has become known for operating the world’s most profitable gaming industry and a go-along, get-along attitude toward Beijing.
However, the continuing protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill may be triggering some small change of political attitudes in Macau, 65 kilometers (40.4 miles) away by ferry. Hong Kong businesses closed to support protests, so did some Macau shops, for example.
Jose Pereira Coutinho, president of the pro-democracy New Hope party in Macau, and one of the most influential members of its legislative assembly, told VOA that despite the different legal systems in Macau and Hong Kong, the two Special Administrative Regions of China “are highly similar in the ways of life and their societies in general. We always reflect on what happens in Hong Kong. The recent protests there … are a lesson for the Macau government to not step into a wrong decision, so that the mistakes would not happen … in Macau.”
His is not the only voice hinting at change.
‘One citizen, one photo’ protest
Macau Concealers, a pro-democracy newspaper, organized a “one citizen, one photo” event that asked people to submit photos of themselves holding protest signs.
Jia Lu, a Macanese journalist, said in his commentary on the Hong Kong protest: “Liberty is never free bread to be taken for granted. Today, as long as you are a human, there is no reason to be silent.”
Some Macau activists traveled across the Pearl River estuary to join the Hong Kong protests.
Macanese reporter Jiajun Chen posted on Facebook during the first week of protests that he was injured by the hot chili spray the Hong Kong police used to control protesters as he covered the crowds. Then, while receiving first aid at the scene, he received another stinging dose from the Hong Kong police. Chen said his press pass was visible during both sprays.
“We are just so used to complaining, often in private, but rarely take action,” Di Ng, 27, a Macanese independent filmmaker, told VOA in a phone interview.
“Macau is a very traditional society largely controlled by different she tuan,” he said. She tuan are foundations and associations organized according to industries, interests, family ties and social identities.
“The elderly get to organize the social order, and they are usually pro-[Beijing]. Even youngsters who want to speak out are discouraged by this social structure.”
“Only after coming to Taiwan did I realize that the definition of a modern society should include democracy, not just fancy mega-casinos and free cash from the government,” said Ng, who is now doing graduate work in film at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.
Macau vs Hong Kong
Meng U Ieong, an assistant professor from the department of government and public administration in University of Macau, cautioned that the values of modern Western democracies are less popular in Macau than they are in Hong Kong, even though Macau was a Portuguese colony for 442 years, or 286 longer years than Hong Kong was under British rule.
“The social mobilization mechanism is very different between Hong Kong and Macau,” he told VOA in an email.
He pointed to the large-scale protest in Macau in 2014 that halted a controversial pension plan for retired officials as the kind of event used as evidence that Macanese will take to the streets only for pocketbook issues.
Abstract “social issues which do not relate to very specific and tangible interests,” such as the extradition bill upsetting Hong Kong, are unlikely to generate protests in Macau, according to Ieong.
Since 2008, Macau’s government has given an annual cash handout to residents. For 2018, all local permanent residents received a cash handout of 10,000 patacas, or about $1,245. Nonpermanent residents received 6,000 patacas.
For both Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, and Macau, the changeover from European colony to Chinese territory came with the concept of “one country, two systems.” Communist Party reformer Deng Xiaoping designed the concept as a way to gather Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan into China, while preserving their political and economic systems.
Taiwan remains independent. Hong Kong has met Beijing’s tightening controls with protests, including the most recent, and largest, ones over a proposed law that would allow extradition for trial in China. The law is backed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is closely aligned with Beijing and who has apologized for the current controversy.
In 2014, Beijing’s interference with the selection of candidates for the chief executive position spawned the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement. It focused on demands for universal suffrage, which is a long-term goal of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Macau, however, emerged as the “one country, two systems” success story. Unlike Hong Kong, with its global reputation as a business center bound by the rule of law, Macau largely depends on gaming and has shown little resistance to Beijing’s influence, according to a recent Foreign Policy article.
“There is stronger Chinese influence [in Macau]. Plus, we usually just see things in economic terms, unlike Hong Kongers who uphold the value of democracy that they inherited from the British,” said a 17-year-old Macanese student. A freshman at a Los Angeles area college, she asked to remain anonymous because she was in Hong Kong attending orientation for non-U.S. students when the protests erupted.
Eilo Yu, an associate professor in the department of government and public administration at University of Macau, expects the Hong Kong protests to influence Macau’s August vote for its chief executive.
“If Mr. Ho Iat Seng, whom I believe will be the only candidate, cannot manage well in responding [to the protest], this will hurt his legitimacy in ruling when he becomes the CE,” Yu said to VOA in an email. “The current situation may be good to his campaign [in] that he need not make a firm statement for a possible extradition between Mainland and Macao. However, if Carrie Lam is going to resign during the Macau election, Ho will be questioned and pressured on his possible resignation when his performance” disappoints Macao citizens.
“We were known for being silent,” said Ng, the filmmaker. “But with the Hong Kongers setting the example, things might be different in the future.”
A federal judge imposed a life sentence on the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., after a white supremacist rally, saying release would be “too great a risk.”
James Fields, 22, of Maumee, Ohio, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He had sought a lesser sentence, apologizing after the court viewed video of him plowing his car into a crowd after the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally, also injuring 30 people.
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, was unmoved by his
plea, saying he had to avert his eyes while the court viewed
graphic video of the attack that showed bodies flying into the air as Fields crashed into them.
“Just watching them is terrifying,” Urbanski said. “The
release of the defendant into a free society is too great a
The rally proved a critical moment in the rise of the
“alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on
white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially
saying there were “fine people on both sides” of the dispute
between neo-Nazis and their opponents at the rally.
Subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw crowds the size of the Charlottesville rally.
After the sentencing, Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she
hoped her daughter would be remembered as a regular person who stood up for her beliefs.
“The point of Heather’s death is not that she was a saint —
and, Lord, my child was never a saint — but that an ordinary
person can do a simple act … that can make all the difference in the world,” Bro said in an interview.
Ahead of Friday’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that
Fields had long espoused violent beliefs. Less than a month
before the attack he posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “you have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”
Fields remained unrepentant afterward, prosecutors said,
noting that in a December 2017 phone call from jail with his
mother, he blasted Bro for her activism after the attack.
“She is a communist. An anti-white liberal,” Fields said,
according to court papers filed by prosecutors. He rejected his mother’s plea to consider that the woman had “lost her
daughter,” replying, “She’s the enemy.”
‘Anathema to our country’
Prosecutors noted that hate crimes, particularly those
driven by white supremacist views, are on the rise in the United States. The FBI’s most recent report on hate crimes, released in November, showed a 17% rise in 2017.
Citing recent attacks on synagogues and burnings of African-American churches in Louisiana, they told a news conference that the U.S. government will continue to focus resources on prosecuting hate crimes.
“Hate-filled violence based on white supremacy and racism is anathema to our country,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “Our government will use its immense power and resolve to identify the perpetrators of these crimes and prosecute them.”
Fields pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime charges in
March under a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to seek the death penalty.
He was photographed hours before the attack carrying a
shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has
identified himself as a neo-Nazi.
Fields’ attorneys suggested he felt intimidated and acted to
protect himself. They asked for mercy, citing his relative youth and history of mental health diagnoses.
The U.S. Senate’s version of the annual authorization for American armed forces earmarks $300 million in military aid to Ukraine, $50 million more than the amount allocated for 2019.
The version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that senators approved this week budgets $750 billion for the Pentagon for fiscal 2020, which begins in October, up from $716 billion this year.
Of the expanded U.S. military assistance to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities, only $100 million is designated for lethal weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ship weapons for coastal defense.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who authored the Ukraine aid amendment, said the bill contains language that aims to limit U.S.-Russian cooperation until Russia frees 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in international waters of the Kerch Strait off Crimea last November.
“The legislation … demonstrates our commitment to stand with the people of Ukraine and the international community in calling for the release of the illegally detained sailors who were fired on and captured by Russian forces in international waters on November 25, 2018,” Portman, who co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said Thursday on the chamber floor.
Portman said the language of his amendment makes the sailors’ release “a condition for the U.S. military cooperation with Russia.”
“We need to take the firm stance against Russia’s blatant disregard for the international law,” he said, referring to the Kerch attack and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the first forcible seizure of territory in Europe since World War II. The annexation triggered war in Ukraine’s east and multiple rounds of U.S.- and EU-led sanctions that have since wreaked havoc on Russia’s economy.
Last month, the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea called on Russia to release the sailors immediately and allow their return to Ukraine.
Russia does not recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction in the matter and did not send representatives to the hearing.
On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a plea to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to free the sailors.
The 973-page bill, which comes amid fulsome debate on President Donald Trump’s latitude to take military action against Iran, also includes a new round of sanctions against North Korea and provisions that target China on issues ranging from technology transfers to the sale of synthetic opioids.
The bill also directs the Pentagon and Maritime Administration “to identify and designate a new strategic port in the Arctic, a move meant to counter Russia’s presence at the top of the world,” as reported by Virginia-based Defense News.
The Senate’s NDAA, passed 86-8, differs from a House version, most likely requiring the formation of a bicameral committee to craft a unified bill that can pass both chambers.
That compromise version, expected later this year, must pass both the Senate and House before Trump can sign it into law.
In a sea of more than 20 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president Joe Biden entered the second of two nights of early Democratic primary debates Thursday with a big bulls-eye on his back.
The front-runner before he even announced his candidacy, Biden was expected to ignore attacks from fellow Democrats as much as possible and to focus instead on challenging U.S. President Trump, trying to create the impression that the real race isn’t the primary at all, but an eventual Biden v. Trump showdown.
And from the get-go, that really did seem like Biden’s strategy. But as the former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once observed, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Biden was repeatedly challenged on his record by his opponents and by moderators from television networks NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, which jointly hosted the event. His answers were often angry and defensive, even to attacks that he must certainly have known were coming.
Passing the torch
During the two-hour debate in Miami, which shoehorned 10 candidates onto a single stage for the second night in a row, the first person to take a swing at Biden was California Rep. Eric Swalwell. The 38-year-old four-term congressman went after the 76-year-old former vice president over his age, pointing out that when Swalwell was 6 years old, in 1982, Biden had come to the California Democratic Convention as a presidential candidate and declared that it was time for America to pass the torch to a new generation.
Biden dodged the first attack deftly, parrying with comments about improving educational outcomes and cutting student debt.
However, it didn’t take long for the next blow to land.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is African American, challenged Biden over his past opposition to integrating public schools through busing, as well as recent comments he made about his ability to strike deals with openly racist members of the U.S. Senate during his early days in Congress. (Biden had mentioned his ability to work with Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, both staunch segregationists from the distant past, as evidence that the Senate used to be a more “civil” place.)
“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. “And, you know, there was a little girl in California, who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
If, coming into the debate, Biden had planned to rise above attacks on him, he abandoned that plan when Harris confronted him. He responded angrily, denying that he had praised Talmadge and Eastland — something Harris never claimed — and launching into a defense of his opposition to busing.
Only a few minutes later, Biden was challenged again, when moderator Chuck Todd asked about his recent assertion that, if he were elected, Republicans in Congress would drop their resistance to Democratic ideas and negotiate. Pointing out that President Barack Obama had made similar comments near the end of his first term, only to be proved wrong, Todd said, “It does sound as if you haven’t seen what’s been happening in the United States over the past 12 years.”
Again, Biden responded angrily, reciting a list of accomplishments during his vice presidency that involved cooperation with Republicans in Congress, including a deal that avoided a federal government default.
He was immediately blasted by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who pointed out that the deal he mentioned involved extending controversial Republican tax cuts indefinitely.
Later, Biden was challenged by moderator Rachel Maddow on his vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather than defending his vote, he instead focused on his efforts, as vice president, to finally bring U.S. combat troops home, again sounding angry and defensive.
Thursday night was a major test for Biden, who has not campaigned for any office since 2012. He won re-election as a senator in 2008, at the same time that he was elected vice president. Biden has not run by himself on any ticket since 2002, 18 years before the election he is hoping to win next year.
Biden only announced his candidacy in late April, but for long before that he was the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary nomination. On May 4, one week after he officially announced his campaign, Biden held a dominant lead over the rest of the field, with 36.8% of the vote, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. His closest rival at the time, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, had less than half that support, at 16.4%.
In the intervening months, much has changed. As of June 26, Biden’s support in the RCP average had dropped to 32%. Sanders had gained only a little, at 16.9%. But the big story was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. At 8 percent a week after Biden announced, she had surged to 12.8% in the week before the first debates. Warren was the only one of the five highest-polling candidates to appear in the first debate.
In the final moments of Thursday’s debate, Biden did his best to move his focus back to President Trump, declaring that he wanted to “restore the soul” of the nation, which he said has been “ripped” out by the incumbent.
If Thursday night demonstrated anything, though, it was that the former vice president’s opponents have no intention of allowing him to keep his focus on the current president. Or to remain comfortable at the top of the polls.