First Person Charged Under Hong Kong Security Law Found Guilty

The first person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law was found guilty on Tuesday of terrorism and inciting secession in a landmark case with long-term implications for how the legislation reshapes the city’s common law traditions. 

An alternative charge of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm was not considered. The High Court will hear mitigation arguments on Thursday and sentencing will be announced at a later date. 

Former waiter Tong Ying-kit, 24, was accused of driving his motorcycle into three riot police while carrying a flag with the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which prosecutors said was secessionist. 

The widely anticipated ruling, much of which has hinged on the interpretation of the slogan, imposes new limits on free speech in the former British colony. Pro-democracy activists and human rights groups have also criticized the decision to deny Tong bail and a jury trial, which have been key features of Hong Kong’s rule of law. 

His trial was presided over by judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan, picked by city leader Carrie Lam to hear national security cases. 

Toh read out a summary of the ruling in court, saying “such display of the words was capable of inciting others to commit secession.” 

She added that Tong was aware of the slogan’s secessionist meaning, and that he intended to communicate this meaning to others. He also had a “political agenda” and his actions caused “grave harm to society.” 

Tong had pleaded not guilty to all charges, which stemmed from events on July 1, 2020, shortly after the law was enacted. 

Tong’s trial focused mostly on the meaning of the slogan, which was ubiquitous during Hong Kong’s mass 2019 protests. 

It was chanted on the streets, posted online, scrawled on walls and printed on everything from pamphlets, books, stickers and T-shirts to coffee mugs. 

The debates drew on a range of topics, including ancient Chinese history, the U.S. civil rights movement and Malcolm X, to ascertain whether the slogan was secessionist. 

Two expert witnesses called by the defense to analyze the slogan’s meaning, drawing upon sources including an examination of some 25 million online posts, found “no substantial link” between the slogan and Hong Kong independence. 

The governments in Beijing and Hong Kong have said repeatedly the security law was necessary to bring stability after the often-violent 2019 protests and that the rights and freedoms promised to the city upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997 remain intact. 

The law, imposed by Beijing in June 2020, punishes what China sees as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. 

The government has said that all prosecutions have been handled independently and according to law, and that legal enforcement action has nothing to do with the political stance, background or profession of those arrested. 

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Former US Senator Enzi of Wyoming Dies After Bicycle Accident

Retired U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican known as a consensus-builder in an increasingly polarized Washington, has died. He was 77. 

Enzi died Monday surrounded by family and friends, former spokesman Max D’Onofrio said. 

Enzi had been hospitalized with a broken neck and ribs after a bicycle accident near Gillette on Friday. He was stabilized before being flown to a hospital in Colorado but remained unconscious, D’Onofrio said. 

Enzi fell near his home about 8:30 p.m. Friday, family friend John Daly said, around the time Gillette police received a report of a man lying unresponsive in a road near a bike. 

Police have seen no indication that anybody else was nearby or involved in the accident, Lt. Brent Wasson told the newspaper. 

A former shoe salesman first elected to the Senate in 1996, Enzi became known for emphasizing compromise over grandstanding and confrontation to get bills passed. 

His “80-20 rule” called on colleagues to focus on the 80% of an issue where legislators tended to agree and discard the 20% where they didn’t. 

“Nothing gets done when we’re just telling each other how wrong we are,” Enzi said in his farewell address to the Senate in 2020. “Just ask yourself: Has anyone ever really changed your opinion by getting in your face and yelling at you or saying to you how wrong you are? Usually that doesn’t change hearts or minds.” 

Wyoming voters reelected Enzi by wide margins three times before he announced in 2019 that he would not seek a fifth term. Enzi was succeeded in the Senate in 2021 by Republican Cynthia Lummis, a former congresswoman and state treasurer. 

Enzi’s political career began at 30 when he was elected mayor of Gillette, a city at the heart of Wyoming’s then-booming coal mining industry. He was elected to the Wyoming House in 1986 and state Senate in 1991.  

The retirement of Republican Sen. Alan Simpson opened the way for Enzi’s election to the Senate. Enzi beat John Barrasso in a nine-way Republican primary and then Democratic former Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan in the general election; Barrasso would be appointed to the Senate in 2007 after the death of Sen. Craig Thomas.  

Enzi wielded quiet influence as the Senate slipped into partisan gridlock over the second half of his career there.  

His more recent accomplishments included advancing legislation to enable sales taxes to be collected on internet sales crossing state lines. He played a major role in reforming the No Child Left Behind law that set performance standards for elementary, middle and high school students.  

He fought for Wyoming as a top coal-mining state to receive payments through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program, which taxes coal operations to help reclaim abandoned mining properties.  

Enzi sought to encourage business innovation by hosting an annual inventors conference. He also backed bills involving the U.S. Mint but his proposal to do away with the penny was unsuccessful.  

Enzi was born Feb. 1, 1944, in Bremerton, Washington. His family moved to Thermopolis soon after.  

Enzi graduated from Sheridan High School in 1962 and from George Washington University with a degree in accounting in 1966. He received a master’s in retail marketing from the University of Denver in 1968.  

He married Diana Buckley in 1969 and the couple moved to Gillette where they started a shoe store, NZ Shoes. They later opened two more NZ Shoes stores, in Sheridan and Miles City, Montana.  

From 1985 to 1997, Enzi worked for Dunbar Well Service in Gillette, where he was an accounting manager, computer programmer and safety trainer.  

Enzi served two, four-year terms as mayor of Gillette. He served on the U.S. Department of Interior Coal Advisory Committee from 1976 to 1979. 

Enzi is survived by his wife; two daughters, Amy and Emily; a son, Brad; and several grandchildren. 

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Major Chinese Companies Caught in Squeeze Play Between Beijing, US

Chinese companies with shares traded on American stock exchanges are facing significant challenges from political leaders in both Washington and Beijing.

New regulations in both countries will make it much harder for other companies to follow in their footsteps, restricting access to billions of the dollars in funding that helped grow internet retail giant Alibaba, the online gaming firm Tencent, the ride-hailing service Didi, and until recently China Telecom.

In Beijing, regulators have signaled that they plan to scrutinize domestic firms that want to list their shares abroad, particularly when those businesses collect data on Chinese consumers. Experts say this is causing many Chinese firms to reconsider plans to sell their shares on exchanges outside of China.

At the same time, the Biden administration is moving forward with plans to implement a 2020 law that would force foreign companies to de-list from U.S. exchanges unless U.S. regulators are allowed to verify their financial audits at least once every three years — something the Chinese government has been highly reluctant to allow.

Many of these major, high profile Chinese companies that have straddled markets and funding sources in the U.S. and China are suddenly caught in a tug-of-war between western capital markets that require financial transparency from public companies and a Chinese government that jealously guards sensitive information.

How this tension gets resolved will determine whether or not Chinese firms have open access to the deepest and most liquid source of investment capital in the world — the U.S. stock markets. It will also determine how much transparency investors can expect from the Chinese companies that are playing an ever-larger role in the world economy.

Major funding source

It’s hard to overstate Chinese companies’ reliance on U.S. capital markets for funding.

In the first six months of 2021 alone, 34 Chinese firms began listing their shares on U.S. exchanges, raising some $12.4 billion in capital and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for Wall Street investment banks. Another 20 companies have initial public offerings (IPOs) scheduled for later this year.

According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, as of May 5 this year, there were 248 Chinese companies listed on U.S. exchanges, with a combined market capitalization of $2.1 trillion.

Bumpy ride for Didi

Early this month, one of those firms, the ride-hailing company Didi, saw its share values plunge after Chinese regulators forced it to remove its app from Chinese markets, citing violations of data use and collection rules.  

In announcing an investigation into Didi, Chinese authorities were vague about what the company’s supposed violations were, but said that the move was part of a broader effort to “consolidate the information security responsibilities of overseas listed companies.”

The Chinese company ByteDance, which owns the hugely popular short-form video app TikTok, earlier this year announced that it would delay its planned IPO in New York. The announcement came after a meeting with Chinese government officials, with the company citing unspecified data security problems.

The result of these government investigations, experts say, has been to make Chinese firms reconsider pursuing an initial public offering in the U.S. or other foreign markets.

Bolstering domestic exchanges

At the same time that it is applying new scrutiny to Chinese firms that list abroad, the Chinese government has been making efforts to show domestic firms that Chinese exchanges are a viable option for raising capital.

After then-president Donald Trump forced China Telecom to de-list its shares in the U.S. early this year, the firm is turning to Chinese exchanges. Last week Chinese regulators agreed to a plan for the company to offer $8.4 billion in shares to the public on the Shanghai stock exchange, the largest share offering on mainland China in more than a decade.

While some worry that the Chinese government is taking early steps to prevent domestic firms from selling their shares on foreign exchanges, others believe Beijing’s aim is not so clear.

China’s aims may be limited

“I think it would be premature to assume that the goal is to prevent listings of any kind by these companies in foreign markets,” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “If that was the goal, the securities regulator could have just refused to approve any of the listings that were in the pipeline.”

In an interview with Bloomberg News last Friday, Paul Triolo, a senior leader with the Eurasia Group also said that he believes Beijing’s strategy is more limited.

It’s not clear that Beijing’s strategy is, for example, to force companies to all list in Hong Kong or on the mainland here, because I don’t think that’s really realistic in the short term,” he said. 

“I think Beijing is trying to thread the needle here,” he added. “They’re trying to get their companies to agree to go through these regulatory hurdles before they list so they can gain some control over this. But they’re still, I think, grappling with the long-term issue of are they going to come to agreement with the U.S. over this auditing issue, because ultimately, that’s going to be a really huge factor in whether Chinese companies are going to continue to go and do IPOs on the U.S. market.”

Complications of transparency

The friction over the U.S. demand that Chinese public companies submit to financial audits arises from the inherent differences between Chinese companies and firms in most other major developed countries. 

In the U.S., for example, public companies tend to have an arm’s-length relationship with the federal government, which means that when investors demand detailed information about their operations and finances, the government’s security interests are not implicated.

In China, however, major companies are often closely intertwined with the government or the armed forces, making demands for Western-style transparency far more complicated.

‘An inflection point’

Experts say there is little question that there will be at least some level of disconnection between Chinese companies and U.S. markets.

“Some decoupling is underway and seems inevitable,” said Doug Barry, a spokesperson for the U.S.-China Business Council. “The whole relationship is at an inflection point.”

“To avoid a major split, China in particular will have to change course in ways that at the moment seem very unlikely,” Barry said. “Our companies that are in China report continued good earnings from their operations there but are increasingly concerned about the future because of the deteriorating bilateral relationship. New investments will be reduced until the outlook becomes clearer.”

Like others, Barry holds out hope for a solution that might prevent major damage. He said that the Phase One trade deal negotiated by the Trump administration might be a means of achieving some kind of balance.

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Pakistan Repatriates Afghan Soldiers Who Crossed Border in Face of Taliban Attack

Pakistan said Monday it “amicably” repatriated dozens of Afghan soldiers and police personnel to authorities in Afghanistan a day after they had crossed the border, apparently fleeing advances by Taliban insurgents.  

Stepped up Taliban attacks in recent weeks have forced hundreds of pro-Afghan government forces to take shelter in Tajikistan, Iran, China and Pakistan, enabling the insurgents to seize landlocked Afghanistan’s strategic border crossings with these neighbors. 

The Pakistani military said the 46 Afghan security forces, including five officers, were given “refuge and safe passage” into Pakistan “on their own request” Sunday night after the men were unable to hold their military posts across the border. 

“The said soldiers have now been amicably returned to Afghan authorities on their request along with their weapons and equipment,” the statement said.  

It added the repatriation took place just after midnight Monday at Nawa Pass border crossing in the Pakistani tribal district Bajaur.  

In an earlier statement, the army noted the Afghan personnel “have been provided food, shelter and necessary medical care as per established military norms.” 

Reports said the soldiers were stationed in the eastern Afghan border province of Kunar, the scene of heavy fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces. 

However, an Afghan armed forces spokesperson, General Ajmal Omar Shinwari, earlier on Monday rejected as “not true” reports of Afghan military personnel seeking refuge in Pakistan. 

Pakistani officials rejected those claims and released video footage of the security personnel just before returning them back to Afghanistan. 

The Pakistani army noted that in early July it had also given “refuge/safe passage” to a group of 35 Afghan border forces under similar circumstances before they were handed over to Kabul. 

The Taliban have stepped up attacks against Afghan security forces and captured vast territory since early May, when the United States and NATO allies officially began pulling their last remaining troops from Afghanistan. 

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, traditionally plagued by suspicion and deep mistrust, deteriorated after the Taliban earlier this month captured the town of Spin Boldak, which serves a major trade route between the two countries. 

There are several border crossings between the two countries, which share a 2,600-kilometer historically open border.  

Kabul has consistently accused Islamabad of allowing the Taliban to use sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to direct attacks inside Afghanistan. 

Pakistan rejects the accusations and says it has over the past five years unilaterally constructed a robust fence and hundreds of new forts along most of the Afghan frontier, effectively preventing illegal movements in either direction. 

Islamabad also accuses Kabul of providing shelter to anti-Pakistan militants to orchestrate cross-border terrorist attacks, charges Afghan authorities deny. 

Bilateral relations between the two countries hit a new low earlier in the month when the Afghan government recalled all its diplomatic staff from Pakistan over the brief kidnapping of the daughter of the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad. 

The Pakistani interior minister said last week, while addressing a news conference, that investigators have not found any evidence substantiating Kabul’s claims that the ambassador’s daughter was kidnapped.  

The minister, however, called for the investigation to formally conclude in line with local laws and for close cooperation between the two countries to continue. 

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Haiti: S Korean TV Channel Apology Over Olympics Stereotypes ‘Didn’t Go Far Enough’

Haitian Foreign Minister Claude Joseph says an apology by the head of a South Korean television station after the broadcaster portrayed Haiti using stereotypical images “didn’t go far enough.”

Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC) used video footage of a riot in Haiti as Haitian athletes marched in the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. The broadcaster is under fire for its use of stereotypical images to portray several countries, including a picture of Count Dracula for the Romanian team and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to represent Team Ukraine.

At a press conference Monday, Park Sung-jae, the president of MBC, bowed deeply and promised a “major makeover,” including installing an ethics committee and better screening system.

The station also apologized to the embassies of Ukraine and Romania in Seoul, Park said.

“Their apology didn’t go far enough, but the incident shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the athletes who have worked tirelessly for years to get to the Olympics,” Joseph told VOA.

“The Olympics are that unique, unifying global event: all nations come together, not for politics but for the beauty of sport,” Joseph said.

Haiti has a delegation of six athletes participating in the Tokyo Games.

MBC’s coverage of the Friday opening ceremony quickly went viral on the internet, with some users expressing outrage and others laughing at the simplistic, offensive images. For Norway, MBC used a picture of fresh salmon. For Italy: pizza. For Mongolia: Genghis Khan.

In an English statement posted online, MBC said the images and captions were intended to “make it easier for the viewers to understand the entering countries quickly” during the ceremony.

“However, we admit that there was a lack of consideration for the countries concerned, and inspection was not thorough enough,” the statement read. “It is an inexcusable mistake.”

MBC has been rebuked before for such behavior. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it referred to Chad as the “dead heart of Africa” and spoke of “murderous inflation” in Zimbabwe.   

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Biden Announces End to US Combat Mission in Iraq

Within months, U.S. forces in Iraq will end their combat duties there, President Joe Biden announced on Monday during a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.  

In response to reporters’ questions in the Oval Office, Biden, alongside the Iraqi leader, said the new role for American troops in Iraq will be ”to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS (Islamic State group) as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.” 

Biden declined to say how many U.S. troops, of the current level of approximately 2,500, will remain there 

“This is a shift in mission. It is not a removal of our partnership or our presence or our close engagement with Iraqi leaders,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained to reporters just prior to the Oval Office meeting. 

U.S. troops in Iraq “are capable of doing multiple things,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a group of reporters in Alaska on Saturday.  

Asked by VOA whether he would classify the American troops currently in Iraq as combat forces or primarily devoted to training, advising and assisting, Austin replied: “I think trying to make that distinction is very difficult. But I would say that the key will be what we’re purposed, what we’re tasked to do at any given time.” 

The emphasis, officials say, will remain on ensuring there is not a repeat of what occurred seven years ago, when the Islamic State group swept through Mosul and tens of thousands of foreign fighters poured into Iraq and neighboring Syria. Iraqi government forces nearly collapsed, and there were dozens of suicide bombings monthly.   

“As we always said from the beginning, nobody is going to declare ‘mission accomplished,'” a senior U.S. official told reporters on a briefing call on the eve of the Iraqi prime minister’s visit. “The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We recognize you have to keep pressure on these networks as they seek to reconstitute, but the role for U.S. forces and coalition forces can very much recede, you know, deep into the background where we are training, advising, sharing intelligence, helping with logistics.  And that’s about where we are now.”  

The United States and Iraq agreed in April to change the American troops’ mission, which had begun in 2015 and focused on training and advisory roles assisting Iraqi security forces, but there was no timeline for completing the transition.   

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told VOA’s Kurdish Service last week he expected the two sides to agree on an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.

“Largely, the shift is emblematic of the role the Biden administration wants the U.S. military to play in the counterterrorism fight: supporting partners through training and other forms of assistance while those partners take the lead in counterterrorism operations,” Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA. “The approach relies heavily on America’s partners to be good partners, however. They must both continue to prioritize counterterrorism and not act in such a way as to further fuel the problem.” 

Monday’s White House meeting came amid continued attacks against U.S. military positions in Iraq that the United States blames on Iran-linked militias.  

On July 24, a pro-Iranian militia commander issued a statement threatening to attack U.S. forces inside the country and calling for a withdrawal of troops.

A drone attack Saturday hit a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan that hosts American troops.   

Attacks in Baghdad in January and April of this year underscore the Islamic State group’s “resilience despite heavy counter-terrorism pressure from Iraqi authorities,” according to a United Nations report issued Friday that predicted the group “will continue to prioritize consolidating and resurging in its core area, encouraged by the political difficulties that inhibit stabilization and recovery” in Iraq and Syria. 

The presence of U.S. troops is a polarizing subject in Iraq, with some citing the need for U.S. military support for Iraq’s security forces and others, including Iran-linked political factions, calling for the American troops to leave.   

“There’s no doubt that the Biden administration is capitalizing on the “end the endless wars” narrative,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA. “These conflicts, however, were not borne out of social or political vacuums, and the violence and threats to U.S. interests emanating from these theaters and actors within them will not end with a unilateral withdrawal or drawdown.”  

Taleblu further warned that Iran is likely to celebrate an announcement of a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq, saying it “helps provide a footnote to the Iranian narrative that America can be forced out of the region and that working against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary foreign policy in the region is futile.” 

Carla Babb in Singapore and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

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Somali Elections Delayed Again; No New Date Set

Somalia’s indirect election of lawmakers, expected to begin Sunday, was delayed once again as regional parliaments were not ready.

No new date was set for the Somali upper house elections. 

Authorities said the vote did not take place because the five state leaders failed to submit a list of the final candidates. They also said a regional parliamentary committee was not put in place to oversee the vote. 

The chair of the federal election implementation committee, Mohamed Hassan Irro, said the process is on the right track despite the setbacks. 

He says the country is working toward a fruitful poll process, adding that the main challenging aspect has been resolved following a political agreement between the federal and state-level leadership in the country. 

Somalia’s parliamentary and presidential elections were scheduled to take place after the end of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo’s term in February, but disagreements between the government and opposition delayed the process for months. 

The opposition says it is looking forward to a smooth process in the coming weeks despite the delays. 

Mohamed Hassan Idris, an opposition member of parliament seeking reelection from Jubbaland state, says all the materials needed for the electoral process have been put into place and that the security and monitoring teams are also ready. He says they expect the list of the candidates to be submitted in the coming hours to kick off their campaigns before the start of the parliamentary elections. 

More than 15 candidates have declared their interest in ousting Farmajo in the October 10 presidential elections that will be decided by the 329 members of parliament. 

Mahad Wasuge from Somali Public Agenda, a research organization in Mogadishu, says the delay in parliamentary elections will affect the presidential vote, which he predicts will be pushed toward the end of the year. 

Separately, Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which disrupted the election process in 2017, last week threatened to harm anyone who takes part in the presidential and parliamentary elections. 

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Europe Makes New Vaccination Push to Counter Rising COVID Cases

With Europe’s rise in coronavirus infections accelerating, more governments are seeking ways to force the unvaccinated, mainly in their twenties and thirties, to get inoculated, and avoid a return to lockdowns.

Italy and Britain have followed France’s lead in planning or imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated.  The moves prompted street protests in both countries Sunday and Saturday. Several British Conservative lawmakers are threatening to boycott their party’s annual conference later this year because of vaccination requirements for attendees.

Initial evidence, however, suggests compulsion is working. Within 24 hours of Italy announcing that from next month entry to sports stadiums, museums, cinemas, swimming pools and gyms will only be permitted for people who’ve been inoculated, appointments for vaccinations soared in some regions by 200%, say authorities in Rome.

France saw a similar spike in vaccine bookings after it announced that certification — in other words a digital vaccine passport — would be needed to enter many venues.

The Italian government has prolonged its state of emergency to December 31 but is desperately trying to avoid lockdowns or reintroducing tighter restrictions for regions seeing spikes in confirmed cases, such as Lazio, Sicily, Veneto and Sardinia. Prime Minister Mario Draghi told reporters last week, “The health pass is an instrument to allow Italians to continue their activities with the guarantee of not being among contagious people.”

“No vaccines means new lockdowns,” he added.

Draghi had intended for the measure to go further and wanted to include vaccination requirements for counter service in bars and for traveling on long-distance trains, but had to weaken the measure in the face of resistance from Matteo Salvini and his Lega party, who threatened to block the restrictions in parliament.

Salvini was belatedly was inoculated Friday. The populist nationalist leader spoke out last week against compelling or seeking to coerce people to get the jab.

“I’m interested in not ruining the lives of millions of Italians who are not yet covered by the vaccine,” he said.  “Many cannot do it, for health reasons. Complicating the lives of these people with the obligation of the Green pass? Let’s not joke. We can’t stop in mid-July, a tourist season that is painstakingly restarting.”  By Green pass, he was referring to vaccine passports.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Draghi, who shot back at a press conference, “The appeal to the No Vax is an invitation to die.”

Thousands of Italians disagree with their prime minister and Saturday took to the streets in dozens of towns across the country to protest the new measure, which comes into effect August 6.

“Better to die free than live like slaves!” read a banner waved outside Milan’s cathedral, while another in Rome was captioned, “Vaccines set you free” over a picture of the gates to Auschwitz, according to AFP reports.

An estimated 160,000 people protested nationwide in France Saturday against making health passports a key tool in the bid to curb infections.  Dozens of people were arrested, according to French police. Twenty-nine policemen were injured.

The protests came hours before lawmakers hammered out a compromise deal between members of the National Assembly and Senate and approved a measure that requires proof of a double vaccination, recent recovery from the virus or a negative test for entry into entertainment venues. Proposed criminal sanctions for businesses that don’t check health passports were removed from the measure that passed.

Under the terms, employees of establishments that require a health pass cannot be dismissed if they refuse to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, but will be required to take annual leave and thereafter unpaid leave.

“Nice evening for democracy, bad for the virus,” tweeted health minister Olivier Véran.

French President Emmanuel Macron, responding to accusations by vaccine opponents that he is trampling on individual liberty, said, “Everyone is free to express themselves calmly with respect for one another. But freedom where I owe nothing to someone else does not exist.”

French health authorities reported nearly 23,000 new confirmed cases Saturday, mainly of the high contagious delta variant.

Despite the raucous protests, the signs both in Italy and France are that tougher vaccination-related restrictions have public backing, with recent opinion polls in Italy and France suggesting support ranges from between 65% and 70%. 

Since Macron announced his plans for health pass rules two weeks ago, six million people in France have signed up for vaccinations.

In Britain, too, there is pushback to new proposed rules from an alliance of anti-vaxxers and libertarians on both the left and right of the political spectrum. After weeks of rejecting the idea of a regime of vaccine passports, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been urging young people to get vaccinated, turned to the stick, too. Come September, vaccine passports will be needed to enter nightclubs and sports stadiums.

The tougher line came as the government’s own private polling suggested young people were far less likely to take up the offer of vaccinations than their older counterparts, government officials told VOA. Public polling by YouGov, a British pollster, has shown the same thing. According to a recent YouGov survey, people aged 16 to 34 are twice as likely to refuse the jab as those between the ages of 55 and 75.

Part of the reason for the schism is that the young feel they are at a much-reduced risk from the virus, say the government’s scientific advisers, and they are more susceptible to vaccine-conspiracy theories via social media, they add.

In Britain and other European countries, governments are being unnerved by the sluggish take-up of the jabs as a delta-driven pandemic picks up steam. In Greece, around 44% of the population is fully vaccinated. Greece’s government has announced mandatory vaccinations for health workers and other staff at hospitals and clinics. 

But the government is encountering fierce resistance from some senior Greek Orthodox clerics, despite the support for the government from Archbishop Ieronymos, the church’s primate, who last year spent several days in intensive care after contracting the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Earlier this month, the Greek health minister, Vasilis Kikilias, met with the Synod, the church’s governing body, in an effort to persuade officials to back the vaccination campaign. The Synod, though, would only support the “free choice of vaccination as the exclusive and scientifically tested solution to stop the spread of the virus.” It added that prayer and “participation in worship” were also important and refrained from rebuking anti-vax clerics.

Germany, too, is now considering imposing restrictions on the unvaccinated, after weeks of German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying she disapproved of the idea. The change of heart coincides with warnings from disease modelers that cases are likely to increase by more than 60% per week.

“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said in a broadcast interview Sunday. 

But there’s fierce debate within the ruling Christian Democratic Party about the tougher retractions on the unvaccinated with the party’s candidate to succeed Merkel in September elections, Armin Laschet, opposing efforts to compel people. “I do not believe in compulsory vaccination, and I do not believe in indirectly putting pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told ZDF television Sunday.

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Marsupial Resurgence in Outback Australia

Experts have said that rare footage of an endangered marsupial in outback Australia is a sign that native animals are beginning to recover from years of feral cat predation.

Feral cats threaten the survival of over 100 native species in Australia, according to federal environment officials.

The opportunistic predators have caused the extinction of some ground-dwelling birds and small to medium-sized mammals.

Experts have said they have been a “major cause of decline” for many endangered marsupials, including the bilby, bandicoot, bettong and numbat.

In the northern state of Queensland, though, there are signs that some native animals are beginning to recover.

At the Astrebla Downs National Park, 1,500 kilometers northwest of Brisbane, 3,000 feral cats have been removed since 2013.

Licensed hunters have said that thermal imaging technology, rather than powerful spotlights, have helped them control the wild cat population by making it easier to find them hiding in vegetation.

A recent survey in the region revealed a record number of 471 bilbies, one of Australia’s best-known marsupials.

Also, for the first time in a decade, researchers managed to film a threatened desert marsupial in outback Queensland in June.

“It is called a kowari,” said ecologist John Augusteyn, who shot the footage. “They are a little, tiny carnivorous marsupial that lives in outback, or arid, western Queensland and also down in South Australia. They are a very charismatic little guy. Very fast, very inquisitive.”

Ecologists say that decent rainfall has also helped to boost marsupial numbers.

Nearly 3 billion animals in Australia were killed or displaced by the devastating “Black Summer” bushfires in 2019 and 2020, according to scientists.

They have said that the biggest cause of species decline in Australia is habitat loss. 

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Haiti Update

On the eve of the funeral for slain Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, host Carol Castiel and assistant producer at the Current Affairs Desk, Sydney Sherry, speak with Haiti expert Georges Fauriol, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and fellow at the Caribbean Policy Consortium, about the chaos following Moïse’s assassination, the breakdown of democratic institutions in Haiti, and the power struggle that ensued over who would become Haiti’s next leader. What does this crisis reveal about the state of affairs in Haiti, and is the international community, Washington in particular, playing a constructive role in Haiti’s political rehabilitation?

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US Infrastructure Proposal May Move Forward Despite Senate Stall

Issues in the News moderator Kim Lewis talks with VOA senior diplomatic correspondent, Cindy Saine, and senior reporter for Marketplace, Nancy Marshall-Genzer, about growing congressional challenges on infrastructure, police reform, COVID-19 and the economy facing the Biden administration, the ramifications of a widespread cyber-attack on Microsoft allegedly conducted by China, controversial Israeli phone surveillance software allegedly misused amid a global hacking scandal, the Tokyo Olympics and global concern over the spreading of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

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Smoke From Nearby Wildfires Helps Crews Gain on Biggest US Blaze 

Scores of wildfires raging across forest and scrubland in the Western United States have belched so much smoke that it is helping an army of firefighters gain ground on the nation’s biggest blaze, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, by blocking sunlight, officials said Saturday.

Both the National Weather Service and officials with the Oregon Department of Forestry said smoke in the lower atmosphere coming from California wildfires has floated over the Bootleg Fire, which has scorched more than 401,000 acres in Oregon about 402 kilometers (250 miles) south of Portland.

“It’s called ‘smoke shading’ and it’s basically put a lid on the lower atmosphere for now, blocking sunlight and creating cooler, more stable surface conditions,” said Eric Schoening, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

The phenomenon is unpredictable, and the area is still under red-flag warnings this weekend from the weather service, which said the Pacific Northwest may experience high temperatures and wind gusts that can fan the flames and spread hot sparks and embers.

More difficulty for aircraft

Schoening said the weather is a mixed bag in terms of helping firefighters.

Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the drawback of the smoke shade is that it makes it harder to fly planes and helicopters that drop water and chemical fire suppressants, even “while it helps the teams on the ground.”

More than 2,000 firefighters and support crews had contained about 42% of the fire by Saturday, although the fire jumped containment lines the night before, he said.

“We lost 1,600 acres last night,” Kauffman said.

The Bootleg Fire is one of more than 80 large active wildfires in 13 states that have charred about 526,090 hectares (1.3 million acres) in recent weeks, an area larger than Delaware, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The smoke, even as it provides some help to Oregon firefighters, has recently been carried by the jet stream and other air currents as far as the Northeastern cities of New York and Boston, where some residents have felt the air contamination in their eyes, noses and lungs.

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US, Spain Set Scoring Records in Water Polo

The world champion U.S. women’s water polo squad began its quest for a third straight Olympic gold medal Saturday by storming into the record books with a 25-4 humbling of hosts Japan at the Tatsumi Water Polo Center.

But the U.S. record for most goals scored in a single match at the Olympics stood just a few hours before being overhauled by reigning European champion Spain, which crushed South Africa 29-4 to lay down a marker of its own.

Teenager Elena Ruiz, making her Olympic debut at age 16, led Spain in scoring with five goals, while nine of her teammates also were on target.

Japan, which like South Africa is playing in its first Olympics, started brightly against the U.S. and even drew level at 3-3, but was outpowered and outclassed once its opponents settled into the match.

“We got off to a rocky start, especially defensively,” said U.S. captain Maggie Steffens, who scored five goals. “The Olympics gives you extra bit of energy and excitement and it was nice to see our team recover and take a deep breath.”

Stephania Haralabidis also scored five, while Madeline Musselman and Aria Fischer chipped in with four apiece for the Americans, who have dominated women’s water polo in the past few years.

Five other U.S. players got on the scoresheet as the match quickly descended into a drubbing.

“We’re human, and we get nervous just like everyone else,” U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said in response to a question on his team’s slow start.

“It’s the first game of the Olympics and those jitters aren’t going to go away for us or for any other team. Sometimes it just gets us, but once we settled down, we were much better.”

US tough in goal

Miku Koide scored twice for Japan, including her country’s first women’s water polo goal at the Olympics, with Yumi Arima and Eruna Ura also on target for the hosts.

But U.S. goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson was in scintillating form, saving 15 of the 19 shots she faced and shutting out the Japanese offense completely in the second and fourth quarters as her team made a dream start in Group B.

Australia also started with a win, beating Canada 8-5 in Group A, with driver Bronte Halligan the pick of the Aussie players with three goals in her Olympic debut.

The Russian Olympic Committee team, who won bronze in Rio five years ago, was locked in a fiercely physical battle with China in the day’s final match, but held on to win 18-17, with captain Ekaterina Prokofyeva helping her team snatch victory with two late goals.

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Rights Chief Condemns Iran’s Violent Suppression of Water Shortage Protests

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is condemning the violent suppression by Iranian security forces of protesters demanding action to resolve chronic water shortages in Khuzestan province.

Peaceful protests took place last week in several cities across Khuzestan in southwestern Iran over water shortages and mismanagement.  Iranian security forces reacted by violently crushing the protests instead of addressing the longstanding water crisis.

Rights chief Michelle Bachelet is calling on the Iranian government to take urgent action to resolve the problem.  She is urging that action instead of using excessive force to stifle debate and keep the population in line.  

Her spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado, tells VOA the people of Khuzestan have legitimate grievances.  She says the only way they can express them and have the government take notice is through protests.

“The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” Hurtado said. “The High Commissioner said that she is extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention.”   

At least four people, including one minor, reportedly have been killed.  Monitors believe the number of killings is likely to be higher as protests have spread to at least 20 major towns and cities in Khuzestan over the past week.  Further protests reportedly have broken out in support elsewhere in Iran, including in the capital, Tehran, and in Lorestan province.

Khuzestan, a province of 5 million inhabitants, used to be the country’s main and most reliable source of water.  However, Hurtado says years of alleged mismanagement, including the diversion of water to other parts of the country and nationwide droughts, have depleted the region of its precious resource.

“That is why the situation is defined by the High Commissioner as catastrophic because it is not something that has happened overnight,” Hurtado said. “It has been building up for many years and the authorities have not been able to address it.  That is why we call the authorities for recognition of what is happening and to address it.”  

High Commissioner Bachelet says it is never too late to change tack.  She is calling on Iranian authorities to instruct their security forces to abide by international standards on the use of force.  And then, she says, the government should take immediate steps to mitigate the water crisis and put in place long-term sustainable policies.  

Iranian authorities so far have not responded to the appeals.

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Algerian Judoka Refuses Potential Olympic Bout with Israeli

An Algerian judo athlete will be sent home from the Tokyo Olympics after he withdrew from the competition to avoid potentially facing an Israeli opponent.

Fethi Nourine and his coach, Amar Benikhlef, told Algerian media they were withdrawing to avoid a possible second-round matchup with Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the men’s 73 kg division on Monday. Nourine was drawn to face Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool in the opening round, with the winner facing Butbul, the fifth seed.

The International Judo Federation’s executive committee has temporarily suspended Nourine and Benikhlef, who are likely to face sanctions beyond the Olympics, which began Saturday. The Algerian Olympic committee then withdrew both men’s accreditation and made plans to send them home.

The IJF said Nourine’s position was “in total opposition to the philosophy of the International Judo Federation. The IJF has a strict non-discrimination policy, promoting solidarity as a key principle, reinforced by the values of judo.”

Nourine and Benikhlef attribute their stance to their political support for Palestinians.

Nourine also quit the World Judo Championships in 2019 right before he was scheduled to face Butbul, who is a much more accomplished judo athlete than Nourine. Those world championships were held in Tokyo at the Budokan, the site of the Olympic judo tournament.

Judo’s world governing body has been firm in its antidiscrimination policies and strong support of Israel’s right to compete in recent years.

In April, the IJF suspended Iran for four years because the nation refused to allow its fighters to face Israelis. The IJF said Iran’s policies were revealed when former Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei claimed he was ordered to lose in the semifinals of the 2019 world championships in Tokyo to avoid potentially facing Israeli world champion Sagi Muki in the finals.

The IJF called Iran’s policy “a serious breach and gross violation of the statutes of the IJF, its legitimate interests, its principles and objectives.” Iran’s ban runs through September 2023.

The IJF aided Mollaei’s departure for Germany after the controversy, and he now represents Mongolia. He will compete Tuesday at the Olympics. 

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