Schumer: ATF Should Investigate Dominican Republic Deaths

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.


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Israeli PM: Palestinians Are Determined to Continue Conflict

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.


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Montagnards’ Deportation Sparks Fears about Safety

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.

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9/11 First Responder Advocate Dies at 53

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.


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Trump Vows Appeal After Judge Blocks Use of Border Wall Funds

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.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico in Calexico, Calif., April 5, 2019.
Judge Blocks Plans to Build Part of Southern Border Wall
A federal judge blocked on Friday President Donald Trump from building sections of his long-sought border wall with money secured under his declaration of a national emergency.

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr., immediately halted the administration’s efforts to redirect military-designated funds for wall construction. His order applies to two high-priority projects to replace 51 miles (82 kilometers) of fence in two areas on the Mexican border.

Gilliam issued the ruling after hearing arguments last week in two cases.

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.”

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Hong Kong Protests Stir Questions in Macau

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.

FILE – Macau lawmaker and member of the election committee, Jose Coutinho, speaks to the media, July 26, 2009.

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.

FILE – Police officers use pepper spray during a rally against a proposed extradition law at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 10, 2019.

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.

FILE – Protesters march along a road demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China, June 12, 2019.

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.

FILE – A croupier counts the chips at a baccarat gaming table inside a casino during the opening day of Sheraton Macao Hotel at the Sands Cotai Central in Macau.

This largesse is because of Macau’s gaming industry. Its revenues overtook those from the Las Vegas Strip in 2007, according to Reuters.

In 2018, the “Vegas of China” tallied $38 billion, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the haul was $6.6 billion in 2018, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

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.

Success story

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.”

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Charlottesville Neo-Nazi Sentenced to Life in Prison

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.” 

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen, center, speaks to reporters during a news conference after the sentencing of James Alex Fields Jr. in federal court in Charlottesville, Va., June 28, 2019.

‘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. 

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Putin Says Liberalism ‘obsolete’; Elton John Disagrees

Elton John on Friday called out Russian President Vladimir Putin for saying that liberalism is “obsolete” and conflicts with the “overwhelming majority” in many countries.

In a story published by the Financial Times newspaper, Putin said “the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” 

John said in a statement released Friday that he disagrees with Putin’s “view that pursuing policies that embrace multicultural and sexual diversity are obsolete in our societies.”

Putin also said Russia has “no problem with LGBT persons … let everyone be happy” in the interview.

John called Putin’s words hypocritical since a Russian distributor censored LGBTQ-related scenes from “Rocketman,” the film based on John’s life and career.

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US Senate Approves Expanded Military Aid to Ukraine  

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. 

FILE – Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is pictured inside the U.S. Capitol, Nov. 16, 2016.

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.” 

‘Firm stance’

“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. 

FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks at a press conference in Paris, June 17, 2019.

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. 

Arctic port
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. 

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian service.

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Biden Faces Tough Sledding in His First Democratic Debate

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.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

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.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Busing opposition

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.”

Defensive, angry

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.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

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.

Campaign test

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%.

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

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.

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Former US VP Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris Clash Over Racial Issues

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was at center stage Thursday on the second night of Democratic presidential debates, but one of his main challengers, Sen. Kamala Harris, sharply questioned his relations with segregationist lawmakers four decades ago and his opposition to forced school busing to integrate schools.

Harris, a California lawmaker and former prosecutor, turned to Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are a racist.” But the African American senator drew cheers from the crowd in an auditorium in Miami, Florida, when she said it was “hurtful to hear” Biden recently as he described how as a young senator he worked with segregationist Southern senators to pass legislation.

“That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” a stern-faced Biden responded. “I did not praise racists.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

But Harris persisted in a sharp exchange, demanding of Biden, “Do you acknowledge it was wrong to oppose busing?” Harris said she had benefited from busing to attend desegregated schools.

Biden defended his longtime support for civil rights legislation, but he did not explain his opposition to school busing in the state of Delaware, which he represented in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic presidential hopeful former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Divisive issue

Court-ordered school busing was a divisive issue in numerous American cities in the 1970s, especially opposed by white parents whose children were sent to black-majority schools elsewhere in their communities to desegregate them.

The Harris-Biden exchange was one of the most pointed of the debate, perhaps catching Biden off guard. The issue of race was triggered midway through the debate when Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was questioned about his handling of the recent fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Buttigieg, who temporarily suspended his campaign to return to his city, said the shooting is under investigation, but added, “It’s a mess and we’re hurting.”

Many in the black community have protested Buttigieg’s handling of the police incident and the relatively small number of black police officers on the South Bend force.

Biden leading early survey

Biden currently leads Democratic voter preference surveys for the party’s presidential nomination, but he was facing some of his biggest rivals, with millions watching on national television. He often defended his long role in the U.S. government, most recently as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president.

He was joined in the debate by nine other presidential candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

In the early moments of the debate, Biden, Sanders and Harris all attacked President Donald Trump for his staunch support for a $1.5 trillion tax cut Congress enacted that chiefly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

“Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation,” Biden said. “I would be going about eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.” Sanders called for the elimination of $1.6 trillion of student debt across the country, while Harris said she would change the tax code to benefit the American middle class, not the wealthy.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders arrives for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

‘The fraud he is’

Sanders attacked Trump in the most direct way of any of the Democratic contenders, declaring, “Trump is a phony, pathological liar and a racist.” He said Democrats need to “expose him as the fraud he is.”

In a wide-ranging debate, some of the contenders voiced disagreements on how to change U.S. health care policies. Sanders, Harris and Gillibrand all, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren the night before, called for the controversial adoption of a government-run health care program to replace the current U.S. system, which is based on workers buying private insurance policies to pay most of their health care bills.

But the other candidates disagreed. Biden, a staunch supporter of the Obamacare plan adopted while he was vice president that helped millions of Americans gain health insurance coverage, said that the existing plan should be improved, not abandoned.

“I’m against any Democrat who takes down Obamacare,” Biden said.

Candidates taking part in Thursday’s Democratic debate in Miami, June 27, 2019.

All 10 contenders said they supported providing health care coverage for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Biden, reflecting other candidates’ comments, said, “You cannot let people be sick no matter where they came from.”

Trump, who was following the debate from the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, blasted the democratic candidates’ position.

All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2019

Biden twice has failed to win the party’s presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008. But he has consistently led national polling this year, both over his Democratic rivals for the party nomination and over Trump in a hypothetical 2020 general election matchup.

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

Biden’s closest Democratic challengers are Sanders and Warren of Massachusetts, the key contender among 10 on the debate stage Wednesday, when more than 15 million people tuned in to see the first major political event of the 2020 campaign.

Biden has attempted to portray himself as a steady alternative to the unpredictable Trump, one who would restore frayed U.S. relations with foreign allies and undo conservative domestic policies Trump has adopted.

But more progressive Democrats have questioned Biden’s bona fides and political history over four decades in Washington as the party’s key current figures have aggressively moved toward more liberal stances on a host of key policy issues, including health care and abortion, taxes and immigration.

Some critics also have suggested that Biden might be too old to become the U.S. leader. Now 76, Biden would be 78 and the oldest first-term president if he were to defeat the 73-year-old Trump and take office in January 2021. Trump often mocks him as “Sleepy Joe.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

‘Pass the torch’

Congressman Eric Swalwell of California jabbed at Biden, recalling that 32 years ago, when Biden first ran for president, Biden contended the U.S. needed to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders. Swalwell said Biden was right when he said that then and joked that “he’s right today.”

Biden laughed at the reference, responding, “I’m still holding on to that torch.”

In the Midwestern farm state of Iowa recently, Trump assessed his possible Democratic opponents, saying of Biden, “I think he’s the weakest mentally, and I think Joe is weak mentally. The others have much more energy.”

Biden, for his part, labeled Trump “an existential threat” to the U.S.

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Key Quotes From Second Democratic Presidential Debate

The second set of 10 Democrats took the stage Thursday night for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 U.S. election cycle in the race to try to oust Republican President Donald Trump from the White House.

On stage were Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), author Marianne Williamson and businessman Andrew Yang.

Here is a look at the top quotes from the spirited debate:

Democratic presidential hopeful former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Joe Biden

As the front-runner, Biden faced tough questions.

He was questioned over his recent comments about working well with segregationist senators and his past opposition to busing plans used to desegregate public schools.

Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, said to Biden: “I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it is personal, and I was actually very — 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. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Biden hit back: “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board: I did not praise racists. That is not true.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders arrives for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders was pressed over his self-description as a socialist, including a question on whether his proposals like Medicare for All would lead to higher taxes on the middle class.

“Every proposal that I have brought forth is fully paid for,” he said, arguing that insurance premiums would be lower under his proposal. “Yes, they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Eric Swalwell

Eric Swalwell was the first of the night to attack Joe Biden. He says he remembers being a child when a Democratic candidate came to California and talked about the need to “Pass the torch” to young people.

“That man was Joe Biden,” Swalwell said. “And yes, we need to ‘Pass the torch.’”

“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Kamala Harris

After some squabbling among the candidate, the moderators tried to move the discussion on. Harris comes in with a line of her own. “Americans don’t want to watch a food fight,” she said. They want to know how they will be able to “put food on the table.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Pete Buttigieg

Asked during the debate why he didn’t manage to hire more black police officers in South Bend, where 26% of the population is black. 

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg responded.

“It’s a mess, and we’re hurting,” he said. “And I could walk you through all the things that we have done as a community. All of the steps that we took from bias training to de-escalation. But it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”

Buttigieg said that these issues South Bend faces are really a national problem, and that across the country it’s important to combat systemic racism in police departments.

“I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching feels the exact same thing — a feeling not of fear, but of safety,” Buttigieg said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. author Marianne Williamson speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019.

Marianne Williamson

Williamson called the policy proposals for the country’s health care plans “superficial fixes” and railed against the current system as a “sickness system” rather than a “health care system.”

“If you think we are going to beat Donald Trump with all these plans, you are wrong,” she said, a tacit swipe at several candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have offered multiple policy proposals.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Michael Bennet

Bennet swiped at President Donald Trump directly over his 2017 tax cuts, tariffs he’s levied as president and poor conditions at migrant detention centers.

“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility,” Bennet said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Kirsten Gillibrand

The New York senator criticized Trump, pointing to the deaths of seven migrant children in U.S. custody during Trump’s tenure in the White House.

“He’s torn apart the moral fabric of who we are, when he started separating children at the border with their parents. The fact that seven children have died in his custody,” Gillibrand said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. entrepreneur Andrew Yang speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Andrew Yang

Yang was asked to defend his proposal to pay $1,000 a month, to every American, from the federal government.

“It’s difficult to do if you have companies like Amazon, trillion-dollar companies, paying zero in taxes,” Yang said, suggesting he would seek to close tax loopholes used by companies. He said he would also add a “mild” value-added tax, a kind of consumption tax used by European countries.

“Just the value gained by having a stronger, healthier, mentally healthier population” would be worth billions to the U.S. economy, Yang said, plus savings, as incarceration rates and homelessness declined.

Democratic presidential hopeful former Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

John Hickenlooper

“As Colorado governor, I brought in progressive policies. Socialism is bad, and will re-elect Trump.”

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Trial Opens over Bangladesh Teen’s Grisly Murder

At least sixteen people were facing the death penalty in a trial that started Thursday over the gruesome death of a young Bangladeshi woman that sparked protests and government promises of tough action.

Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 19, was set on fire in April after allegedly refusing to withdraw claims of sexual harassment against the head teacher of the Islamic seminary she attended.

She was lured onto the seminary rooftop in the southeastern town of Sonagazi, doused in kerosene and set alight, prosecutors say. She died five days later, triggering countrywide outrage.

The 16 people indicted — including the teacher — could face the death penalty if convicted. All defendants pleaded not guilty, while eight of the accused told the court that police forced them to sign written statements confessing involvement in the murder.

A special tribunal opened the trial Thursday at a crowded courtroom in the southeastern Feni district, with the first testimony by Rafi’s elder brother Mahmudul Hasan Noman who filed the case.

Noman — one of 92 people due to testify — described the killing in the court, saying the murder could have been avoided if police had acted upon Rafi’s harassment complaint.

The trial is expected to finish in six months, but Noman has urged the court to fast-track the hearings.

“Several defendants have alleged they were tortured and given electric shocks to sign confessional statements,” defence lawyer Giasuddin Ahmed told AFP, adding the case has become “politically motivated”.

Rafi had gone to police in March to report the alleged harassment. A leaked video shows the then district police chief registering her complaint but dismissing it as “not a big deal”.

The police official was later dismissed and arrested early this month for failing to properly investigate her allegations.

Police said at least five people — including three of Rafi’s classmates — tied her up with a scarf before setting her on fire. The plan was to stage the incident as a suicide case.

Rafi suffered burns to 80 percent of her body and died on April 10. But she recorded a video before her death, repeating her allegations against the head teacher.

Rights groups are closely monitoring the case as it came amid a spike in the number of rape and sexual assaults reported in Bangladesh.

They have said “a culture of impunity” is partly to blame for rise in sexual violence in the country.

According to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s rights group, only three percent of rape cases end in convictions.

It said about 950 women were raped in Bangladesh last year.


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Afghan President Begins Pakistan Visit

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has begun a two-day official visit to Pakistan to pursue what aides say would be the normalization of the relationship between the two uneasy neighboring countries.

The Afghan leader held delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan shortly after arriving in Islamabad at the head of a large delegation comprising Cabinet ministers, advisors and Afghan business community leaders.

In this photo released by the Foreign Office, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, second from right, talks with visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 27, 2019.

Officials said the discussions focused on strengthening mutual cooperation in a number of areas, including political, trade, economic, security as well as peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. Ghani is also scheduled to address a conference of Pakistani and Afghan businessmen.

Allegations that the Pakistani military supports and shelters Taliban leaders are at the center of long-running bilateral tensions and mistrust. Pakistan rejects the charges and in turn accuses the Afghan spy agency of providing refuge to militants waging terrorist attacks against the Pakistani state.

The two countries share a nearly 2,600 kilometer, largely porous border, which critics say encourages illegal movement in both directions. Pakistan is unilaterally installing a robust fence along most of the frontier and believes it would address mutual security concerns.

FILE – Pakistani soldiers stand guard at a newly erected fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Angore Adda, Pakistan, Oct. 18, 2017.

Officials in Islamabad see Ghani’s latest visit as an indication his government “now realizes and accepts the centrality of Pakistan” to resolve bilateral issues and promote the Afghan peace process.

A senior foreign ministry official underscored the need for regular, direct and uninterrupted institutional-level engagement between the two countries. The official spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.

“While Afghanistan realizes the importance of Pakistan in medium to long term, Pakistan also feels that it is important to remain engaged with the government of Afghanistan regardless of who heads it,” stressed the Pakistani official.

Last week, Pakistan hosted a “peace conference” of around 60 top Afghan political personalities, mostly opposition leaders, to try to underscore its neutrality in the conflict-torn Afghanistan.

U.S.-Taliban peace talks

Ghani’s visit comes at a time of intensified diplomatic efforts the United States is making to find a political settlement with the Taliban insurgency to end the nearly 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.

It also comes ahead of the next round of peace negotiations between U.S. and insurgent delegations to be hosted by Qatar on Saturday.

The Afghan government has been excluded from the dialogue process because of the Taliban’s refusal to deal with what the insurgents dismiss as an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Islamabad takes credit for arranging the U.S.-Taliban peace dialogue, insisting peace in Afghanistan is key to Pakistan’s own long-term security.

U.S. officials acknowledge Pakistani efforts in promoting the Afghan peace but they are seeking more help from Islamabad in terms of persuading the Taliban to show flexibility in the talks.

“Pakistan has a particularly important role to play in this process…Progress has been made. We will continue to look to Pakistan for practical measures, cooperation on peace talks and the implementation of any agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Kabul.

FILE – This Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs photo from Feb. 25, 2019, shows U.S. and Taliban representatives meeting in Doha to discuss ways to end the Afghan war.

Taliban and U.S. officials have held six rounds of talks in the nearly year-long process. The two sides say they have drafted a primary agreement that would bind the Taliban to stop terrorists from using insurgent-control areas for international terrorism. In turn, Washington would announce a troop withdrawal timetable.

But the Taliban rejects calls for a permanent cease-fire and the start of a formal intra-Afghan peace dialogue until it secures a U.S. troop withdrawal deal.


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America’s LGBTQ Community Marks 50 Years of Gay Rights Movement

Fifty years ago today (June 27, 1969),  police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. The violent protests that followed galvanized the gay rights movement in America. A half-century later, society’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community has evolved, as highlighted in a groundbreaking exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC. For some members of the LGBTQ community, the exhibit is deeply personal. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

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Ex-Trump Aide Manafort to Be Arraigned Thursday in New York

Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for U.S. President Donald Trump, will be arraigned Thursday in a New York court in Manhattan on state criminal charges, after having been convicted last year on federal fraud charges.

Manafort, 70, is scheduled to appear before Justice Maxwell Wiley of the state Supreme Court at 2:15 p.m. EDT (1815 GMT) Thursday, court spokesman Lucian Chalfen told Reuters.

Manafort faces 16 felony charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney. The state charges include mortgage fraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records, and relate to alleged efforts by Manafort and others to obtain millions of dollars in loans on New York properties.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance made the indictment public in March, on the same day Manafort was sentenced on federal crimes.

Manafort is serving a 7 1/2-year federal sentence for tax fraud, bank fraud and other charges.

Federal prosecutors accused him of hiding $16 million from U.S. tax authorities that he earned as a consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and then lying to banks to obtain $20 million in loans when the money dried up.

The federal charges stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Manafort faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted on the top charges in the New York case.

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