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Netflix Signs Barack and Michelle Obama to Media Deal

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 18:18


Barack and Michelle Obama are getting into the television business with Monday’s announcement that they had signed a multiyear deal with Netflix.

The former president and first lady have formed their own production company, Higher Ground Productions, for the material. In announcing a deal that had been rumored since March, Netflix offered no specifics on what shows they would make.

Netflix said the Obamas would make “a diverse mix of content,” potentially including scripted and unscripted series, documentaries or features.

“We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the wider world,” Barack Obama said in Netflix’s announcement.

The Obamas can be expected to participate in some of the programming onscreen, said a person familiar with the deal, not authorized to talk publicly about it, on condition of anonymity. The programming itself is not expected to be partisan in nature; a president who often derided the way things were covered on cable news won’t be joining in.

The type of people that Obama — like other presidents — brought forward as guests at his State of the Union addresses would likely provide fodder for the kinds of stories they want to tell.

“Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others,” Michelle Obama said.

No content from the deal is expected to be available until at least 2019, said the person familiar with the deal.

The former president appeared in January on David Letterman’s Netflix talk show, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” Obama is said to be friendly with Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, and discussions for other programming were already under way.

“We are incredibly proud they have chosen to make Netflix the home for their formidable storytelling abilities,” Sarandos said.

Netflix has 125 million subscribers worldwide. The company has always been reluctant to discuss how many people watch its programming, but it clearly dominates the growing market for streaming services. Roughly 10 percent of television viewing now is through these services, the Nielsen company said.

Forty-nine percent of streaming being viewed now comes through Netflix, and no other service comes close, Nielsen said.

Why Venezuela’s Elections Don’t Matter to a Desperate Populace

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 18:16

From the New York Times:

Elections are approaching in Venezuela, but many citizens have other concerns. As President Nicolás Maduro looks to stay in power, thousands are trying to flee. A Times video correspondent traveled to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. This is what he saw.

The video is about 6 minutes. Take a look:

Concerns Rise as WhatsApp Becomes Campaign Tool in India

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 17:58


WhatsApp faces scrutiny in India amid concerns about the role the app is playing in disseminating information ahead of crucial elections.

Before a recent high-stakes election in the southern state of Karnataka, Rupesh Ramachandran was fed up with the barrage of messages he was receiving on the social messaging service owned by Facebook, which itself has come under fire in the United States in a privacy scandal.

“I was getting bombarded with messages, campaign messages from a Congress Party candidate,” the Bengaluru resident said. He was referring to India’s main opposition party, the Congress Party, which ruled Karnataka and was pitted against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Every time I blocked his number, I would still receive messages from a different number,” he said. He could identify some as based on false information.

Rashmi Kaushal’s phone also pinged, but with different posts.

“There were lots of anti-Congress ones because the ones from my group were from BJP and a lot of messages which kind of glorified the BJP rule,” he said.

Primary campaign tool

With the explosive growth of smartphones in India, WhatsApp has fast turned into the primary campaigning tool for India’s political parties. But worries are growing that the posts and videos on WhatsApp include misinformation and messages that have the potential to inflame communal tensions.

“There has not been much attention, at least globally, on WhatsApp and its role in spreading fake news,” said Pranesh Prakash at the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru. “Indeed, WhatsApp has been far more potent in the spread of fake news than has Facebook [in India].”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign strategists successfully used social media in the 2014 general elections. Since then, all political parties have turned to it in a big way. Their focus is mainly on the messaging service used by more than 250 million people in India, including those in dusty towns and villages that high profile campaign rallies will not reach.

It is not surprising. WhatsApp has become a huge favorite in India for chats, calls and messaging: Indian users sent a record 2 billion messages on New Year’s Eve alone.

Researchers estimate that months before Karnataka residents went to the polls, the two main parties created about 50,000 WhatsApp groups to micro target voters. At war rooms set up in the state capital, Bengaluru, battle-ready strategists used laptops to coordinate with hundreds of volunteers throughout the state who were trained at workshops.

But alongside the pro-party messaging and videos that these groups helped spread, there were false news stories, whose sources were difficult to determine because of the encrypted nature of WhatsApp.

Anything was useful: For example, there was a fake post about a BBC poll predicting a BJP win and a letter claiming to be from the U.S. consulate in New Delhi putting a regional party in first place.

“The moment you see a very credible brand being associated with it, you don’t really bother to check whether it is true or not,” said Jency Jacob, managing editor for, a fact-checking website that debunked several such posts and videos including the fake surveys.

The website debunked several other posts as well. Among them, stories that alleged that the Congress Party’s chief minister of the state had been accused of corruption by party president Rahul Gandhi, and, in another instance, a fake email that apparently called on Bangalore’s archbishop to convert Lingayats, a religious sect politically dominant in the state, to Catholicism.

“WhatsApp as a medium is much more dangerous when it comes to how the bad actors are utilizing it,” Jacob said. “Compared to Facebook and Twitter, what happens is there is a huge virality.”

Researchers say what is particularly worrying is the ability to spread misinformation on WhatsApp without being traced.

“It is tougher to research and tougher to investigate and hence tougher to call attention to and tougher to take action upon,” said Prakash at the Center for Internet and Society.

While large numbers of people do not have access to computers or the ability to check facts, there is also worry that many tend to believe what they are reading.

“It is not the illiteracy of the population that is of concern to me; it is rather the suspension of all disbelief when it comes to forwards on WhatsApp,” Jacob said.

The battle on WhatsApp is likely to intensify as India heads into next year’s general election. While Prime Minister Modi remains popular, he is expected to face tough opposition, and both sides are expected to mount an all-out social media campaign to woo voters.

Ankit Lal is a strategist for the Aam Aadmi Party, which rules Delhi and is hoping to expand its presence in other parts of the country. He called the social media app the most powerful tool for politicians. What about the potential for misuse?

“It is like nuclear technology. Whether you use it for a missile or whether you use it to power your home, it’s your decision,” he said.

Egyptian Socialist Activist Arrested in Continued Crackdown

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 17:54


Egypt’s state security prosecutoron Saturday ordered a prominent activist detained for 15 daysfor investigation on charges of involvement with a banned groupand inciting and taking part in illegal protests, rights lawyers

Haitham Mohamedeen, a leftist lawyer, was taken from his home Friday, security sources said, the latest in a number of arrests of activists in recent weeks.

At least 20 people have been detained by security forcesover protests against a rise in metro fares, and they are beinginvestigated on charges that include disturbing the peace andobstructing public facilities.

Mokhtar Mounir and Mohamed Hanafi, two rights lawyersrepresenting Mohamedeen, told Reuters he was under investigationfor “participating in the activities of a banned group whileknowing its objectives” and “using the internet to inciteterrorist acts,” charges he denies. The prosecutor did not
identify the banned group, Hanafi said.

A judicial source confirmed Mohamadeen’s detention but gaveno further comment.

Mohamedeen had been detained at least twice in the past,once in 2013 on accusations of belonging to a secretorganization and spreading lies about the military, and again in2016 for calling for protests against the transfer of two RedSea islands to Saudi Arabia.

His detention followed those of other prominent activists.

State security prosecutors this week ordered Shady GhazalyHarb, a leading opposition figure during the 2011 Arab Springuprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, held for 15 daysfor investigation over accusations including joining a terroristorganization, according to state news agency MENA.

Last week, authorities detained Amal Fathy for 15 days forinvestigation on charges of insulting the state after she posteda video on social media criticizing the government for failingto protect women against sexual harassment.

Campaigners say Egypt’s human and civil rights record hasdeteriorated sharply under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Sissi’s supporters say his tough security policy is needed toensure stability as Egypt recovers from years of political chaosand tackles economic challenges and an Islamist insurgency.

Sissi this week pardoned more than 330 people, many of themyoung people jailed for demonstrating in recent years.

Questions Surround Accuracy of Iraq’s Electronic Ballot System

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 17:52


As demands for a manual voter recount surge amid claims of election fraud in the Iraqi general elections, the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is concerned a ballot-by-ballot recount could portray the newly introduced electronic system as a failure, one member says.

During a telephone interview with Voice of America, Saeed Kakei, a member of the IHEC, said his request for a manual recount was rejected by other members of the election commission who “feared” that a recount could possibly show the failure of the machines.

“I told them we should work with transparency. What is the fear for?” Kakei told VOA. “I proposed that they manually recount 25 percent of the ballot boxes, or at least 5 percent, but they refused to do so.”

The IHEC is headed by a nine-member board and has complete authority over holding elections and examining electoral complaints.

Other members of the commission could not be reached for comment.

First vote since IS emergence

Iraq held elections to pick a new parliament and government May 12 for the first since the emergence of the Islamic State in parts of the country in 2014.

The introduction of electronic counting machines for the first time by the IHEC was initially hailed as an attempt to prevent voter fraud while also expediting election results.

But the announcement of the results this week led to strong criticismfrom several political blocs who claimedthe electronic counting machines had been manipulated in favor of their political opponents.

IHEC, however, defended the electronic system as accurate and transparent. A public statement from the election body Friday rejected conducting a manual recount, saying the electronic tally was done according to the country’s electoral laws.

“The election commission, in compliance with the law and the constitution, rejects all forms of pressure which are exercised by some affected by the results,” the statement said.

WATCH:Iraq for First Time Uses Electronic Counting in Elections

In a separate statement Wednesday, the commission said Kakei and his family had received death threats from “one of the political parties affected by the election results.”

Proponents of manual recount

Those in favor of a manual recount include Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, the Conquest Allianceand six Kurdish political parties from the Kurdistan Region.

Jan Kubis, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, on Thursday called on IHEC to promptly investigate the complaints, particularly in the province of Kirkuk, which is disputed between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Region.

“It is important that these are undertaken in full transparency, witnessed by stakeholders, to strengthen the confidence in the process. The U.N. is ready to provide assistance, if requested,” Kubis said.

Kakei told VOA that most of the complaints concerned the possible compromise of Polling Station Count Optical Scanners (PCOS) and Central Count Optical Scanners (CCOS), provided to Iraq by the South Korean firm Miru Systems. The firm received $135 million as part of a contract signed in April 2017.

Fingerprint voter identification technology purchased from the Spanish company Indra Sistamas has resulted in no such complaints, he charged.

“If the electronic results are inaccurate, we should admit to the people that we made a mistake,” he said, adding that Iraqi’s contract with Miru Systems holds the company accountable if malfunction or interference was verified.

Under the new system, Iraqi voters inserted ID cards into a machine that linked them to individual ballot boxes using machine-readable codes. Voters used a rubber stamp to mark their chosen candidates on the ballot papers before putting them into a scanner for electronic sorting and counting.

Parliamentary session canceled

Whether the machines have been tampered with will remain controversial in the coming weeks, as winning parties continue their efforts to play a role in forming the next Iraqi government.

An Iraqi parliament emergency session on the fraud allegations was set for Saturday but had to be called off for the lack of a quorum; at least165 of the 328 members were required to be present.

Meanwhile, the bitter dispute among the members of Iraq’s electoral body will most likely increase questions about the performance and independence of the commission.

Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesperson for Abadi, said Thursday that the prime minister had referred the electoral body to the government’s Integrity Commission even before the elections were held for “violating some procedures.”

Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Killed as Crisis Escalates

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 17:46


The U.N. human rights office reports the recent killing of several human rights defenders in Guatemala shows an alarming deterioration in the rule of law as threats increase against those working on behalf of indigenous and minority rights.

During the past 12 days, three human rights defenders working with indigenous and peasants rights organizations in Guatemala were killed. The activists were trying to secure land rights for indigenous people under an agreement worked out with the Government.

U.N. Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says human rights defenders in the country are operating within a climate of fear, harassment and intimidation.

“We call on the authorities to promptly investigate these murders and other attacks and threats against human rights defenders, and to ensure that those found responsible are held accountable. We also urge the State to adopt all necessary measures to ensure a safe, enabling environment for human rights defenders to be able to carry out their work free from threats and attacks,” she said.

Shamdasani says the Government must do more to strengthen the rule of law.She says the rights to freedom of expression and judicial independence are under threat. She says this hinders efforts to fight impunity and corruption, which threaten all levels of civil society.

She says human rights monitors report with growing concern on what they see as an escalation of smear campaigns against independent journalists and media, judicial officials, civil organizations and others working to end corruption and impunity.

VIDEO: Children who marched for equal rights inspire youth

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 17:47

From PBS NewsHour:

Fifty-five years ago, thousands of African-American children walked out of their schools and began a peaceful march in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation. They were met with attack dogs and water hoses. For a new generation of students, traveling to Birmingham has made that moment in history come alive. Special correspondent Lisa Stark reports.

The video is about 8 minutes. Take a look:

Video transcript:

Judy Woodruff:

It was a moment that changed America.

Fifty-five years ago this month, thousands of African-American children walked out of their schools and began a peaceful march in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation.

They were met with attack dogs and water hoses. The disturbing images shocked the nation and became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act.

This moment in history has now come alive for a group of students who traveled to Birmingham.

Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week went along with them.

It’s part of our series Race Matters.


Everywhere that I went, this is what I always saw, “Colored” and “White.”

Lisa Stark:

These fifth and sixth graders are mesmerized.


Our restaurants, our dentist’s office, our doctor’s office, everywhere that we went, this is what we always saw when I was your age.

Lisa Stark:

John Alexander (ph) and Charles Avery (ph) grew up in the segregated South.


My dad asked me, what is your greatest ambition in life, son? I said to drink out of that water fountain, talking about that white water foundation. I just wanted to know what it tastes like.

Lisa Stark:

For those listening, these stories are now much more than just a chapter in a history book.

Here’s Amari and Avion.


They used the word “I,” as in like, they’re themselves, so you’re actually looking at the person.


We get to hear their perspective on it, because nobody can tell their story better than the person who actually experienced it.

Francesca Peck:

We believe in the power of immersion and the power of bringing history to life for our students.

Lisa Stark:

Francesca Peck is the director of culture and character for the Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, a school with an in-depth curriculum that stresses first-hand learning.

Francesca Peck:

Let’s come immerse ourselves, let’s come experience it, let’s come to the primary source and get a feel of what it was like to live at that time.

Lisa Stark:

To do that, these Chicago fifth and sixth graders traveled 10 hours and more than 600 miles, from Illinois to Alabama.

Francesca Peck:

Welcome to Birmingham, ladies and gentlemen. Give yourselves a round of applause. We have made it.


Lisa Stark:

Birmingham, the site of the 1963 Children’s Crusade. Thousands of young black students left their classrooms to march against segregation.

These students are here to examine and record their own thoughts on what transpired back then and why.

This visit to Birmingham isn’t a field trip. It’s fieldwork. And it puts the students right at the center of their own research project. It comes after a year of preparation in the classroom, studying the civil rights movement.


And they were singing one word over and over.

Lisa Stark:

They have watched documentaries.

Martin Luther King Jr.:

Don’t worry about your children. And they are going to be all right.

Lisa Stark:

Analyzed photographs.

Francesca Peck:

What are they trying to accomplish?


They’re trying to accomplish their freedom. They’re trying to earn what they work for.

Lisa Stark:

Dissected first-hand accounts and studied the arc of civil rights history.

Polaris Charter Academy is largely African-American and low-income. The school’s mission includes instilling a sense of activism and social justice.

Francesca Peck:

It’s not just that children are critical thinkers and that children are producing high-quality work and that they are of, like, great character, but really that they see themselves as agents of change in their community.

Lisa Stark:

So, they’re here retracing steps child activists took 55 years ago, visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church, where marchers gathered.


Being inside of it made me feel kind of excited, because I knew that Martin Luther King was in that same exact spot, in that same exact place.

Lisa Stark:

Studying the memorials in the park, where authorities decades ago unleashed dogs and water hoses against the protesters.


I feel like — I kind of feel angry.

Francesca Peck:

Tell me more. Why?


The white people want the dogs to bite humans, and they’re not treating humans as humans.


They teach people in kindergarten that everyone is equal and to just be kind. And the fact that they were so brutal to African-Americans is not OK.

Lisa Stark:

They’re confronting some of the most frightening symbols of the time and meeting men and women who were young students themselves when they marched for equal rights.

Janice Kelsey was 16 during what became known as the Children’s Crusade.

Janice Kelsey:

We sang “We Shall Overcome,” and we walked out in pairs. And we were stopped by police officers, who told us , “You stay in this line, you’re going to jail.”

I had already made up my mind I was going to jail, and that’s exactly where I went for four days.

Raymond Goolsby:

So, this is holy ground, all of this, young people. All of this is where it all happened.

Lisa Stark:

Raymond Goolsby was 17 at the time and recalls his fear waiting in the 16th Street Baptist Church to begin the march.

Raymond Goolsby:

Now, my group was the first group out, and I’m sitting there shaking like a leaf on a tree in the building before we walked out. And I say, man, I don’t know whether I want to do this.

All those billy club, police standing out there with the billy clubs.

Lisa Stark:

The stark images from that time, now memorialized, shocked the nation, leading to a fierce backlash.

Birmingham leaders buckled, releasing the students from jail and agreeing to begin desegregation.


I feel thankful for the people that went through all this, because if they wouldn’t have went through it, that means I would have had to went through it. And I know, for me right now, I wouldn’t be that brave enough to do what they did.

Lisa Stark:

Four months later, angry white supremacists would place a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls, including Cynthia Wesley, Janice Kelsey’s close friend.

Janice Kelsey:

Because she gave up her life for things that I believed in, then agreed to talk about it to young people, so that you will know what it took to get to where we are.

Lisa Stark:

Today, of course, Birmingham is a very different city, the nation a different place. But these students are encouraged to connect the past with the present.

Francesca Peck:

We are here to ask the question, how do members of a community effect change?

Lisa Stark:

If you guys could march today, what would you march for?


Well one, I would march for gun violence, and I would also march for, like, justice.

Lisa Stark:

What about you? What would you march for today?


I would march for the same things as Lance, peace and gun violence, so people could stop killing each other.

Lisa Stark:

Many of these students live in neighborhoods touched by violence.


You know, like, we need to make a difference, but it’s just, like, can really one person make a difference in the world?


Like, some people don’t believe that kids could actually made a change, but I believe kids can actually make a change.

Lisa Stark:

With encouragement from those who have come before.

Raymond Goolsby:

What you got to do is study hard, and you will be able to compete for whatever you want to do. The sky’s the limit with you young people. The sky is the limit.

Lisa Stark:

A future shaped by those early civil rights activists.


I will definitely remember it because it’s a part of my history, because it’s a part of people who are like me. And it’s our story. And this generation, they have to decide on whether they’re going to make a story like that generation did.

Lisa Stark:

For the “PBS NewsHour” and Education week, I’m Lisa Stark in Birmingham, Alabama.

Populist Iraqi Cleric’s Bloc Seals Surprise Election Victory

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 17:31
Muqtada al-Sadr – link


Iraq’s electoral commission said Saturday that a bloc led by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War, has won the most seats in Iraq’s national parliamentary elections.

Al-Sadr’s Marching Toward Reform alliance with Iraq’s communists won 54 seats.

The Conquest Alliance earned second place with 47 seats, while the Victory Alliance, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came in third with 42.

Al-Sadr did not run for a seat in parliament and cannot become prime minister. But as head of a political alliance, he will play a major role in the deal-making and political wrangling that goes into putting together an Iraqi government.

The results of the May 12 election had been held up to determine whether a new electronic voting system used in the election was faulty.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said earlier this week that the U.S. stands by Iraqis’ electoral choices, despite al-Sadr’s surprise win.

Mattis praised Iraq’s move toward democracy.

Bonus Video from Al Jazeera:

Ranked Choice Voting is Not a Conspiracy, it is Nonpartisan

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 16:56

Ranked Choice Voting is not a Liberal or Democrat “conspiracy”. It is nonpartisan.

RCV is simply a method, invented in 1871, of giving voters a way of expressing their preference among a crowded field of three or more candidates, and to conduct an Instant Runoff Election with a single ballot (saving time, resources, and money versus an actual runoff election) if no candidate wins a majority in the initial round of tabulation.

The current accusations by entrenched Republican elites in Maine does not change these facts. I recently attended a presentation by Dental Hygienist and Maine State Representative Heather Sirocki of Scarborough, who opposes RCV, despite Scarborough voters preferring RCV by 6706 to 5754 in the November 2016 election. Alas, Representatives who don’t actually represent is not new to politics.

Maine State Representative Heather Sirocki – link

She and other Republican leaders, sadly and apparently afraid of actually needing to convince the majority of Mainers to support their candidates and policies, have decided to now oppose RCV.

Republicans introduced RCV in Alaska and Utah. Right wing conservatives pushed for it nationwide, in 1919, in Australia, where it has been used successfully for 100 years.

In Maine, in 2007, LD 585 was introduced in the legislature to enact RCV in Maine with five Republican and five Democrat co-sponsors.

35% of Republican voters supported RCV in November 2016 according to a Portland Press Herald Poll at the time.

But suddenly, now some Republicans claim RCV is a conspiracy, and insist plurality/minority winners are just fine.

This is quite ironic, since if the Republicans didn’t use multiple rounds of balloting, and allowed plurality winners, the “Party of Lincoln” would never have had Abraham Lincoln! He only won at the Republican Convention of 1860 in the third round of balloting. If plurality winners had been the rule then, William Seward of New York would have won, and we would have never had one of our greatest presidents!

Continuing with irony, the Republican Party of Maine picks its leadership with a multi-round runoff election system with the candidate with the least number of votes being eliminated each round. So apparently, what’s good for the leadership, is not good for the rank-and-file according to the Republican elites in Maine. This is the wording from their own Rules of the Maine Republican Party:

“2.3(c) In each officer election if, on the first ballot, no one candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the candidate receiving the least number of votes shall be eliminated and a second round of voting will be held. Balloting shall continue in this manner until one candidate receives a majority vote.”

Sadly, due to the crass partisan politics of the times we live in, and desperate Republican elites who believe that they can’t win majorities in Maine, operatives are spreading deceptive misinformation about RCV. Those entrenched politicians are so terrified of having to actually appeal to more voters, they now believe they can ONLY win if they game and break the system. Frankly, this is an embarrassing position for party leaders to take.

These Republican elites insult the intelligence and choices of the majority of Mainers who voted for RCV and signed the petitions for a People’s Veto when the Maine Legislature attempted to bury RCV instead of enacting it.

Despite the fact that RCV and the subsequent People’s Veto were supported and advocated for by thousands of unpaid volunteers (I know, I was one) and passed with one of the lowest dollars spent per yes votes received of any initiative (an indicator of grass roots support), they now raise the spectre of “outside money and influence”, (I am surprised they could say that with a straight face, and in English instead of Russian).

Ranked ballot example – link

Republicans legislators refused to put forward in front of voters, the technical change to the Maine Constitution that could clearly and unequivocally have allowed for the method that RCV uses to determine the winning candidate.

The Republicans claim RCV is unconstitutional, falsely claiming that a non-binding advisory opinion of the court on the matter is a ruling of constitutionality. It is not. They do this while completely ignoring the history of Maine which caused Mainers to change our Constitution in 1880, which was about legislative malfeasance and not a lack of desire by Maine voters to have candidates win with majorities.

Instead of using the opinion of the court as the motivation to make the necessary technical changes, they ignored the voters and Maine history, and used the same old partisan shenanigans to protect narrow partisan interests.

They brazenly advocate against democracy to insist minority/plurality candidates, who earn less than 40% of the vote, opposed by 60% or more of voters, are somehow good for us all. Then they crassly support candidates they are ideologically opposed to so they may serve as spoilers to split opposition voters. Republicans have also resorted to gerrymandering districts with heretofore unknown levels of precision with modern technology, and using a variety of voter suppression tactics.

Republicans were rightfully against those things when they accused Democrats of using them, but now they wholeheartedly embrace them. These actions are hypocritical and disgraceful, and do not serve the long term interests of our state and nation, and sadly, they don’t serve the Republican party either, with shortsighted opposition to improvements that RCV offers all of us.

What goes around comes around, and Republicans would be wise to take a longer term view and support the improvements that RCV offers We the People, and ALL parties.

We all need to stand against partisan shenanigans on both sides to reclaim our government. RCV is the best chance we have for that, no matter what side of the political spectrum you live on.

Support a More Perfect Union, I encourage Maine voters to Vote Yes on Question One on June 12th, or vote now with an absentee ballot!

Activists Allege Killings in Iran Police Protest Crackdown

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 18:54


Iranian opposition and human rights activists said Thursday that security forces had shot and killed several people the night before in a southern city where marchers were protesting a plan to divide their municipality.

The opposition activists said the killings in Kazerun happened after hundreds of people had staged a peaceful protest in the city’s central square earlier in the day.

Iran’s state-run ISNA news agency quoted the governor of Fars province, where Kazerun is located, as saying one person had been killed in a violent confrontation between the security forces and protesters. Iranian state media said some of the protesters had set fire to a police station, prompting officers to shoot.

WATCH: Audience member’s video, sent to VOA Persian, shows a man wounded in a confrontation with security forces late Wednesday in Kazerun.

In the ISNA report, provincial Governor Esmail Tabadar said the clashes continued sporadically in Kazerun on Thursday, but the situation was “under control.”

WATCH: Audience member’s video, sent to VOA Persian,shows confrontations with security forces continuing in Kazerun on Thursday.

Video clips shared on social media in the aftermath of the unrest showed burned vehicles and other debris on the streets.

WATCH: Audience member’s video, sent to VOA Persian, shows Thursday’s aftermath of violence inKazerun.

Residents of Kazerun joined Wednesday’s march to protest renewed talk of a government plan to turn two of its outlying areas into a new city that they fear would rob them of government funds. The Iranian lawmaker representing Kazerun, who lives in one of the outlying areas, has pushed Iran’s Interior Ministry to create the new city. But there has been no word on when the Iranian Cabinet will decide on the matter.

U.S.-based Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi said Tehran has “spilled Iranian blood again” through its actions in Kazerun. In a Thursday tweet, Pahlavi said his heart “beats for the brave, noble people of this city,” whom he credited with “steadfast resolve” and “remarkable courage” in pursuit of freedom and democracy in Iran.

Protests began in December

Iranian security forces have killed a number of Iranians in violent crackdowns on some of the anti-government protests that have swept the country since last December. Iranian authorities said at least 20 people had been killed in its crackdown during the initial week of nationwide protests, whichstretched into early January. Iran blamed that violence on rioters incited by its foreign enemies, without providing evidence.

Retired Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Michael Segall, an Iran analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told VOA Persian that his sources said some of Wednesday’s protesters were armed and some of the Iranian security forces who confronted them wore civilian clothes.

“The appearance of plainclothes security personnel is significant,” Segall said. “Usually, Iranian leaders use them when a situation is out of control or when they want to suppress an event quickly, as they did with the December-January protests.”

Kazerun residents told VOA Persian that the city’s government-appointed Friday prayer leader, Mohammad Khorsand, had sparked the protest by speaking in favor of the city division plan at last Friday’s prayers. Residents demonstrated against the plan last month but called off the protests after authorities promised not to proceed with it.

Lawmaker’s proposal

Kazerun lawmaker Hossein Rezazadeh has proposed turning parts of the city’s northern outlying districts of Nowdan and Qaemiyeh into a new city named Kuh-e-Chinar. Many residents oppose the plan, fearing the city would draw government funds away from Kazerun and create a new layer of corrupt bureaucracy in the area.

In Thursday’s edition of VOA Persian’s Straight Talk call-in show, most people who called from inside Iran said they believed the Iranian government was underreporting the death toll from the violent crackdown in Kazerun. Some callers also reported cuts to internet and phone connections in the city.

A caller who gave his name as Mohammed from the neighboring city of Shiraz said Iranian authorities could have peacefully resolved the grievances of Kazerun residents before the protest escalated.

“The government wants to use force to fix things instead of discussing matters with the people. There was no reason for blood to be shed,” he said.

Another caller who identified himself as Ardeshir said the protesters were not just upset about the proposed city division.

“Some of their dissatisfaction is related to other things, like the poor state of the economy,” the caller said.

Behrooz Samadbeygi and Afshar Sigarchi of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.

Lack of Paper Trail a Concern Amid Fears of US Election Hacking

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 18:52


As the midterm congressional primaries heat up amid fears of Russian hacking, roughly 1 in 5 Americans will be casting ballots on machines that do not produce a paper record of votes.

That worries voting and cybersecurity experts, who say lack of a hard copy makes it difficult to double-check results for signs of manipulation.

“In the current system, after the election, if people worry it has been hacked, the best officials can do is say, ‘Trust us,’ ” said Alex Halderman, a voting machine expert who is director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society.

Georgia, which holds its primary on Tuesday, and four other states — Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina — exclusively use touchscreen machines that provide no paper records allowing voters to confirm their choices.

Such machines are also used in more than 300 counties in eight other states —Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas — according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring the accuracy of elections.

In all, about 20 percent of registered voters nationwide use machines that produce no paper records.

Confident about accuracy

Many election officials in states and counties that rely on those machines say they support upgrading them but also contend they are accurate. In many jurisdictions, the multimillion-dollar cost is a hurdle.

The focus comes as states gear up for the first nationwide elections since Russian hackers targeted 21 states ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. U.S. intelligence agencies have said that there is no evidence any vote tallies were manipulated but that Russians and others are intent on interfering in American elections again.

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report that recommended replacing machines that don’t producepaper records of votes cast.

Some states already have taken that step or are doing so.

Virginia last year banned paperless touchscreen machines two months before the state’s gubernatorial election. This year, Kentucky ordered that all new machines produce paper trails.

Not enough money

Congress has allocated $380 million to help states with election security upgrades, but that is just a small fraction of what would be needed to replace all paperless machines.

Louisiana is soliciting bids to replace the state’s nearly 10,000 such machines ahead of the 2020 election, though all the money has yet to be allocated. Funding also is an issue in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has ordered that counties planning to replace their electronic voting systems buy machines that leave paper trails.

“It’s important because everybody needs to have confidence in the voting process,” Wolf said. “And given what is alleged to have happened in 2016, I think there’s some concern that maybe people aren’t as confident as they should be.”

The rest of the country uses either paper ballots that are filled out by hand and then read by optical scanners, or touchscreen machines that printoutballots so voters can verify their selections before inserting them into other machines to record their votes.

Since 2016, 46 Texas counties have upgraded their electronic machines, according to the secretary of state’s office. Of those, only 11 went to systems with paper trails.

San Jacinto County, north of Houston, is among those that continued with a paperless system when it bought new touchscreen machines. County election administrator Vicki Shelly said that voters have not raised concerns and that she is confident in the new equipment.

“There’s a lot of checks and balances,” she said.

In Georgia, the cost to switch to paper-based machines in the state’s 159 counties ranges from $25 million to more than $100 million, depending on the technology adopted. The state is eligible to receive a little over $10 million from Washington.

Steps taken

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has said extensive security measures and cyberdefense upgrades make the state’s current system reliable. Those measures include outside security monitoring, regular checks for system vulnerabilities and a backup of voter data that is stored in a secure location.

Amanda Strudwick, 43, a nurse from Decatur, said she has to take Georgia election officials at their word.

“If somebody wants to screw it up, they can do it,” she said at an early voting center in metro Atlanta. “That does not mean opting out of voting. Too many people have fought throughout history for my right to vote.”

Concerns about Georgia’s voting machines have been prominent in the race for the state’s next election chief, with both Democratic and Republican candidates saying the equipment should be replaced.

GOP candidate Josh McKoon released a campaign video showing him taking a baseball bat to a voting machine. During a recent debate, he said close elections such as the 2017 Atlanta mayor’s race require a recount that involves paper records, not just running the tallies on the voting machines a second time.

“Having the paper ballot that can be read and verified for the voter is essential,” he said.

A Wikipedia Campaign to Shine Light on Women Activists

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 18:49


Fewer than 1 in 5 Wikipedia biographies are of women, and a tiny minority are human rights defenders, a situation Amnesty International hopes to remedy this weekend with a push to shine a light on those whom history has overlooked.

Amnesty is teaming up with Wikimedia, the nonprofit branch of the online encyclopedia, which every year brings together hundreds of volunteer editors and activists to create new articles on a specified topic.

Over the next two days, the volunteers will aim to add or improve the biographies of thousands of women rights defenders all over the world, which Amnesty hopes will help protect them as well as providing the recognition they deserve.

“The more women human rights defenders are fairly represented the better the protection,” the head of Amnesty International’s global human rights defenders program Guadalupe Marengo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Human rights defenders have been attacked and intimidated. The space in which they work in is in some places shrinking,” she said.

“If you then talk about women human rights defenders or those who defend LGBTI rights, the most marginalized ones, then the attacks are even worse … that’s why we thought it was crucial to do this,” she added.

Among those whose lives will be documented are Czech activist Elena Gorolova, who launched her campaign to end discrimination against Roma women after she was forcibly sterilized following the birth of her second son.

Another is Bridget Tolley, who co-founded a campaign group led by relatives of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada.

“I have faced the impacts of colonialism, racism, economic exploitation, systemic abuse and hatred of women all my life,” Tolley said.

“To have my work highlighted in a positive way means that our struggles and our resilience as indigenous women can no longer be ignored. We will not be silenced.”

How People Power Fueled the Malaysian Election Upset

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 18:44
Mahathir Mohamad – link


Malaysia’s historic general election last week was the first upset of the National Front coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1961. In large part this was the result of the grass-roots efforts of citizens to vote against formidable odds: Their electoral boundaries were redrawnto favor the National Front, election day was a Wednesday, and citizens found out they had to have registered by December 2017 — five months before an election that was announced in April — to be allowed to vote.

Beyond that, there were many smaller roadblocks, such as voters could be prevented from voting if they were deemed to be wearing the wrong clothes, or poorly trained polling booth officials might forget to stamp (and thus invalidate) a ballot.

Many Malaysians spontaneously defended polling stations Wednesday night from widespread rumored threats, such as phantom ballot boxes, said Liyana Yusof, a civic activist in Kuala Lumpur with the nonprofit youth voting campaign called Watan.

“It wasn’t really planned in advance,” she said, speaking two days after the election. “I just went to the polling station nearest to me on election night — it happened to be Lembah Pantai [district in southwestern Kuala Lumpur], and stayed there for four hours to see if police tried anything funny, like smuggling in ballot boxes.”

Residents of another neighborhood called Setia Alam, in Selangor state, locked in their polling station officials with a bicycle lock until they agreed to stamp and release the results, which registered an opposition win.

“That’s just part of the deal with voting here,” Yusof said, matter-of-factly. “In the last election, I was part of a human chain of people who defended our polling station.”

From civil society to parliament

Another civil society movement that laid some groundwork for the mass turnout and anti-corruption sentiment in this election is called “Bersih,” the Malay word for “clean.” Bersih has been advocating for electoral reform in Malaysia since 2006. Bersih rallies have blanketed the capital several times in a sea of yellow shirtsto protest corruption, electoral fraud, and roadblocks to free elections.

“The big win for us was to bring awareness that the system is rotten,” said Maria Chin Abdullah, an activist who ran Bersih for 10 years. “Holding mass rallies in Malaysia was really a big leap forward. Our people don’t usually do that. It was a sign that people have simply had enough of this corruption.”

She spoke to VOA from her campaign headquarters one day before the election.

In what now seems like a portent of change, Abdullah, 62, left Bersih to run for parliament herself this year, under the Alliance banner. The woman who oversaw Bersih’s transition from a government initiative to a fully independent civil society movement will now take a seat of her own in the legislature.

“The big problem this year was that the Election Commission has been setting up new laws almost every day,” she said. “Bersih members were supposed to have access to ballot boxes in police offices, which have been denied. And then there is the insane scale of vote buying: [the National Front] is distributing flat-screen TV’s and motorbikes. It’s just an unlevel playing field.”

What’s next?

Abdullah’s top policy agenda items within the new administration are electoral reform, mainstreaming gender equality, and resolving local constituency issues like affordable housing, she told VOA.

“We should provide training to increase women’s participation at all levels of the decision-making process and have affirmative action to increase the minimum portion of female members of parliament to 30 percent,” she said.

More broadly, Bersih’s work certainly paved the way for this historic election, Abdullah said.

“It laid the foundation for the rakyat [people] to claim their rights of expression, assembly, and association,” she said.

Abdullah is personally against the “first-past-the-post” parliamentary system that is in place in Malaysia, by which the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins and becomes the MP for that seat. She says that system makes it too easy for parties or coalitions to rule without the popular vote, which happened for the National Front in 2013.

Still, even within that possibly flawed system, the obstacles to voting this year were easily conquered roadblocks in retrospect, said James Chin of the University of Tasmania. The last prime minister, Najib Razak, was embroiled in a scandal in which he was accused of stealing almost $700 million from a state-owned development fund, and his National Front coalition had, in six decades of unchallenged rule, grown out of touch with its voter base.

“Even the Wednesday [election day] had no impact,” Chin said. “Malaysians were so angry with Najib that they were willing to sacrifice their leave and everything in order to, as the Americans say, whack him. They wanted to whack him.”

Saudis Arrest Activists Who Campaigned for Women’s Right to Drive

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 18:31


Saudi authorities have detained at least six activists, including three of the country’s most prominent women’s rights campaigners, weeks before the kingdom is set to lift a ban on driving by women, people familiar with the arrests said Friday.

The Associated Press spoke with two people in touch with the detainees’ relatives. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion, said five were arrested Tuesday and the sixth person was detained Thursday. Several more are feared to have been detained, and others have been banned from traveling abroad by the government.

The government has not commented on the arrests, and government spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The crackdown on prominent activists comes about five weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world’s only ban on women driving on June 24. It is seen as a significant step toward allowing greater women’s rights in the kingdom.

Among those detained since Tuesday is Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested in late 2014 and held for more than 70 days for criticizing the government online and pushing for the right to drive.

Others arrested include Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, two of the most well-known women’s rights activists in the kingdom who for years had campaigned for the right to drive. Al-Nafjan and al-Yousef have both taught at state-run universities and are mothers, with al-Yousef also a grandmother.

Activists’ other targets

The three women had also called for an end to other, less visible forms of discrimination in Saudi Arabia, such as guardianship laws that give male relatives final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.

When the kingdom issued its stunning royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women like al-Nafjan and al-Yousef were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to reporters or speaking out on social media.

Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter.

Activists say it’s not clear why the six activists — four women and two men — have been arrested now. Among the men detained is lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudimigh, who previously defended al-Hathloul in court.

As activists remain under pressure to keep silent, credit for reforms, such as lifting the ban on driving by women, has largely gone to the king’s 32-year-old son and heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has relaxed some of the country’s ultraconservative rules by allowing women into stadiums to watch sports and bringing back musical concerts and movie theaters.

Such measures, however, are more about boosting the economy and improving the country’s image abroad, and less about promoting personal freedoms. The kingdom remains an absolute monarchy where protests are illegal and where the king and his son oversee all major decision-making.

Anti-corruption sweep

Last year, Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of high-level princes and businessmen in a purported anti-corruption sweep that forced detainees to sign over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom.

Security forces also arrested last year dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies, according to activists.

Human Rights Watch says the number of people held for excessively long periods has apparently increased dramatically in recent years in Saudi Arabia. The rights group, which analyzed a public database, said on May 6 that 2,305 people had been detained for more than six months without being referred to a judge. Another 1,875 have been held “under investigation” for more than a year, and 251 for over three years.

Revealing China’s Mass-Indoctrination Camps For Muslims

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 17:49


Hour upon hour, day upon day, Omir Bekali and other detainees in far western China’s new indoctrination camps had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.

When Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim, refused to follow orders each day, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food for 24 hours. After 20 days in the heavily guarded camp, he wanted to kill himself.

“The psychological pressure is enormous, when you have to criticize yourself, denounce your thinking — your own ethnic group,” said Bekali, who broke down in tears as he described the camp. “I still think about it every night, until the sun rises. I can’t sleep. The thoughts are with me all the time.”

Since last spring, Chinese authorities in the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang have ensnared tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslim Chinese — and even foreign citizens — in mass internment camps. This detention campaign has swept across Xinjiang, a territory half the area of India, leading to what a U.S. commission on China last month said is “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

Chinese officials have largely avoided comment on the camps, but some are quoted in state media as saying that ideological changes are needed to fight separatism and Islamic extremism. Radical Muslim Uighurs have killed hundreds in recent years, and China considers the region a threat to peace in a country where the majority is Han Chinese.

The internment program aims to rewire the political thinking of detainees, erase their Islamic beliefs and reshape their very identities. The camps have expanded rapidly over the past year, with almost no judicial process or legal paperwork. Detainees who most vigorously criticize the people and things they love are rewarded, and those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation.

The recollections of Bekali, a heavyset and quiet 42-year-old, offer what appears to be the most detailed account yet of life inside so-called re-education camps. The Associated Press also conducted rare interviews with three other former internees and a former instructor in other centers who corroborated Bekali’s depiction. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their families in China.

Bekali’s case stands out because he was a foreign citizen, of Kazakhstan, who was seized by China’s security agencies and detained for eight months last year without recourse. Although some details are impossible to verify, two Kazakh diplomats confirmed he was held for seven months and then sent to re-education.

The detention program is a hallmark of China’s emboldened state security apparatus under the deeply nationalistic, hard-line rule of President Xi Jinping. It is partly rooted in the ancient Chinese belief in transformation through education — taken once before to terrifying extremes during the mass thought reform campaigns of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader sometimes channeled by Xi.

“Cultural cleansing is Beijing’s attempt to find a final solution to the Xinjiang problem,” said James Millward, a China historian at Georgetown University.

Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said China’s re-education system echoes some of the worst human rights violations in history.

“The closest analogue is maybe the Cultural Revolution in that this will leave long-term, psychological effects,” Thum said. “This will create a multigenerational trauma from which many people will never recover.”

Asked to comment on the camps, China’s Foreign Ministry said it “had not heard” of the situation. When asked why non-Chinese had been detained, it said the Chinese government protects the rights of foreigners in China and they should also be law-abiding. Chinese officials in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment.

However, bits and pieces from state media and journals show the confidence Xinjiang officials hold in methods that they say work well to curb religious extremism. China’s top prosecutor, Zhang Jun, urged Xinjiang’s authorities this month to extensively expand what the government calls the “transformation through education” drive in an “all-out effort” to fight separatism and extremism.

In a June 2017 paper published by a state-run journal, a researcher from Xinjiang’s Communist Party School reported that most of 588 surveyed participants did not know what they had done wrong when they were sent to re-education. But by the time they were released, nearly all — 98.8 percent — had learned their mistakes, the paper said.

Transformation through education, the researcher concluded, “is a permanent cure.”

“People’s war on terror”

On the chilly morning of March 23, 2017, Bekali drove up to the Chinese border from his home in Almaty, Kazakhstan, got a stamp in his Kazakh passport and crossed over for a work trip, not quite grasping the extraordinary circumstances he was stepping into.

Bekali was born in China in 1976 to Kazakh and Uighur parents, moved to Kazakhstan in 2006 and received citizenship three years later. He was out of China in 2016, when authorities sharply escalated a “People’s War on Terror” to root out what the government called religious extremism and separatism in Xinjiang, a large Chinese territory bordering Pakistan and several Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan.

The Xinjiang he returned to was unrecognizable. All-encompassing, data-driven surveillance tracked residents in a region with around 12 million Muslims, including ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs. Viewing a foreign website, taking phone calls from relatives abroad, praying regularly or growing a beard could land one in a political indoctrination camp, or prison, or both.

The new internment system was shrouded in secrecy, with no publicly available data on the numbers of camps or detainees. The U.S. State Department estimates those being held are “at the very least in the tens of thousands.” A Turkey-based TV station run by Xinjiang exiles said almost 900,000 were detained, citing leaked government documents.

Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the European School of Culture and Theology, puts the number between several hundreds of thousands and just over 1 million. Government bids and recruitment ads studied by Zenz suggest that the camps have cost more than $100 million since 2016, and construction is ongoing.

Bekali knew none of this when he visited his parents on March 25. He passed police checkpoints and handed over his decade-old Chinese identity card.

The next day, five armed policemen showed up at Bekali’s parents’ doorstep and took him away. They said there was a warrant for his arrest in Karamay, a frontier oil town where he lived a decade earlier. He couldn’t call his parents or a lawyer, the police added, because his case was “special.”

Bekali was held in a cell, incommunicado, for a week, and then was driven 500 miles (804 kilometers) to Karamay’s Baijiantan District public security office.

There, they strapped him into a “tiger chair,” a device that clamped down his wrists and ankles. They also hung him by his wrists against a barred wall, just high enough so he would feel excruciating pressure in his shoulder unless he stood on the balls of his bare feet. They interrogated him about his work with a tourist agency inviting Chinese to apply for Kazakh tourist visas, which they claimed was a way to help Chinese Muslims escape.

“I haven’t committed any crimes!” Bekali yelled.

They asked for days what he knew about two dozen prominent ethnic Uighur activists and businessmen in Kazakhstan. Exhausted and aching, Bekali coughed up what he knew about a few names he recognized.

The police then sent Bekali to a 10- by 10-meter (32- by 32-foot) cell in the prison with 17 others, their feet chained to the posts of two large beds. Some wore dark blue uniforms, while others wore orange for political crimes. Bekali was given orange.

In mid-July, three months after his arrest, Bekali received a visit from Kazakh diplomats. China’s mass detention of ethnic Kazakhs — and even Kazakh citizens — has begun to make waves in the Central Asian country of 18 million. Kazakh officials say China detained 10 Kazakh citizens and hundreds of ethnic Kazakh Chinese in Xinjiang over the past year, though they were released in late April following a visit by a Kazakh deputy foreign minister.

Four months after the visit, Bekali was taken out of his cell and handed a release paper.

But he was not yet free.

“We now know better”

Bekali was driven from jail to a fenced compound in the northern suburbs of Karamay, where three buildings held more than 1,000 internees receiving political indoctrination, he said.

He walked in, past a central station that could see over the entire facility, and received a tracksuit. Heavily armed guards watched over the compound from a second level. He joined a cell with 40 internees, he said, including teachers, doctors and students. Men and women were separated.

Internees would wake up together before dawn, sing the Chinese national anthem, and raise the Chinese flag at 7:30 a.m. They gathered back inside large classrooms to learn “red songs” like “Without the Communist Party, there is no New China,” and study Chinese language and history. They were told that the indigenous sheep-herding Central Asian people of Xinjiang were backward and yoked by slavery before they were “liberated” by the Communist Party in the 1950s.

Before meals of vegetable soup and buns, the inmates would be ordered to chant: “Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi!”

Discipline was strictly enforced and punishment could be harsh. Bekali was kept in a locked room almost around the clock with eight other internees, who shared beds and a wretched toilet. Cameras were installed in toilets and even outhouses. Baths were rare, as was washing of hands and feet, which internees were told was equated with Islamic ablution.

Bekali and other former internees say the worst parts of the indoctrination program were forced repetition and self-criticism. Although students didn’t understand much of what was taught and the material bordered on the nonsensical to them, they were made to internalize it by repetition in sessions lasting two hours or longer.

“We will oppose extremism, we will oppose separatism, we will oppose terrorism,” they chanted again and again. Almost every day, the students received guest lecturers from the local police, judiciary and other branches of government warning about the dangers of separatism and extremism.

In four-hour sessions, instructors lectured about the dangers of Islam and drilled internees with quizzes that they had to answer correctly or be sent to stand near a wall for hours on end.

“Do you obey Chinese law or Sharia?” instructors asked. “Do you understand why religion is dangerous?”

One by one, internees would stand up before 60 of their classmates to present self-criticisms of their religious history, Bekali said. The detainees would also have to criticize and be criticized by their peers. Those who parroted official lines particularly well or lashed into their fellow internees viciously were awarded points and could be transferred to more comfortable surroundings in other buildings, he said.

“I was taught the Holy Quran by my father and I learned it because I didn’t know better,” Bekali heard one say.

“I traveled outside China without knowing that I could be exposed to extremist thoughts abroad,” Bekali recalled another saying. “Now I know.”

A Uighur woman told AP she was held in a center in the city of Hotan in 2016. She said she and fellow prisoners repeatedly were forced to apologize for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Quran to their children and asking imams to name their children.

Praying at a mosque on any day other than Friday was a sign of extremism; so was attending Friday prayers outside their village or having Quranic verses or graphics on their phones.

While instructors watched, those who confessed to such behavior were told to repeat over and over: “We have done illegal things, but we now know better.”

Owing the country

Other detainees and a re-education camp instructor tell similar stories.

In mid-2017, a Uighur former on-air reporter for Xinjiang TV known as Eldost was recruited to teach Chinese history and culture in an indoctrination camp because he spoke excellent Mandarin. He had no choice.

The re-education system, Eldost said, classified internees into three levels of security and duration of sentences.

The first group typically consisted of illiterate minority farmers who didn’t commit any ostensible crimes other than not speaking Chinese. The second class was made up of people who were caught at home or on their smartphones with religious content or so-called separatist materials, such as lectures by the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti.

The final group was made up of those who had studied religion abroad and came back, or were seen to be affiliated with foreign elements. In the latter cases, internees were often were sentenced to prison terms of 10 to 15 years, Eldost said.

While he was teaching, Eldost once saw through the window 20 students driven into the courtyard. Two rows of guards waited for them and beat them as soon as they got out of the police van. He later heard that the internees were recent arrivals who had studied religion in the Middle East.

Violence was not regularly dispensed, but every internee AP spoke to saw at least one incident of rough treatment or beatings.

Eldost said the instruction was aimed at showing how backward traditional Uighur culture is and how repressive fundamentalist Islam is compared to a progressive Communist Party. The internees’ confessions of their backwardness helped drive the point home.

“Internees are told to repeat those confessions to the point where, when they are finally freed, they believe that they owe the country a lot, that they could never repay the party,” said Eldost, who escaped from China in August after paying a bribe.

Eldost said he tried in little ways to help his internees. Tasked with teaching the Three Character Classic, a Confucian standard taught widely in elementary schools, he would make up mnemonic devices to help his students — including elderly or illiterate Uighur farmers who barely knew their own language — recite a few lines. He also advised students to stop habitually saying “praise God” in Arabic and Uighur because other instructors punished them for it.

Every time he went to sleep in a room with 80 others, he said, the last thing he would hear was the sound of misery.

“I heard people crying every night,” he said. “That was the saddest experience in my life.”

Another former detainee, a Uighur from Hotan in southern Xinjiang, said his newly built center had just 90 people in two classes in 2015. There, a government instructor claimed said that Uighur women historically did not wear underwear, braided their hair to signal their sexual availability, and had dozens of sexual partners.

“It made me so angry,” the detainee said. “These kinds of explanations of Uighur women humiliated me. I still remember this story every time I think about this, I feel like a knife cut a hole in my chest.”

Kayrat Samarkan, a Chinese Kazakh from Astana who was detained while running errands in a northern Xinjiang police station in December, was sent to an internment camp in Karamagay in northern Xinjiang with 5,700 students.

Those who didn’t obey, were late to class or got into fights were put for 12 hours in a loose body-suit that was made of iron and limited their movement, he said. Those who still disobeyed would be locked in a tiger chair for 24 hours. As one form of punishment, he said, instructors would press an internee’s head in a tub of ice and water.

After three months, Samarkan couldn’t take the lessons anymore, so he bashed his head against a wall to try to kill himself. He merely fell unconscious.

“When I woke up, the staff threatened me, saying if I did that again they would extend my sentence to 7 years there,” he said.

After 20 days, Bekali also contemplated suicide. Several days later, because of his intransigence and refusal to speak Mandarin, Bekali was no longer permitted to go into the courtyard. Instead, he was sent to a higher level of management, where he spent 24 hours a day in a room with 8 others.

A week later, he went to his first stint in solitary confinement. He saw a local judicial official walking into the building on an inspection tour and yelled at the top of his lungs. He thought even his former detention center, with the abuse he suffered, would be better.

“Take me in the back and kill me, or send me back to prison,” he shouted. “I can’t be here anymore.”

He was again hauled off to solitary confinement. It lasted 24 hours, ending late afternoon on Nov. 24.

That’s when Bekali was released, as suddenly as he was detained eight months earlier.

A Baijiantan policemen who had always gone easy on Bekali during interrogation appeared and checked him out of the facility.

“You were too headstrong, but what the department did was unjust,” he told Bekali as he drove him to his sister’s home in Karamay.

Bekali was free.

Freedom, but not for his family

The next morning, a Saturday, the police opened their immigration office for Bekali to pick up a unique, 14-day Chinese visa. His original had long expired. Bekali left China on December 4.

Seeking compensation from the Chinese government is out of the question. But Bekali keeps a plastic folder at home of evidence that might prove useful someday: his passport with stamps and visas, travel records and a handwritten Chinese police document dated and imprinted with red-ink seals.

The document is the closest thing he has to an official acknowledgement that he suffered for eight months. It says he was held on suspicion of endangering national security; the last sentence declares him released without charge.

At first, Bekali did not want the AP to publish his account for fear that his sister and mother in China would be detained and sent to re-education.

But on March 10, back in China, the police took his sister, Adila Bekali. A week later, on March 19, they took his mother, Amina Sadik. And on April 24, his father, Ebrayem.

Bekali changed his mind and said he wanted to tell his story, no matter the consequences.

“Things have already come this far,” he said. “I have nothing left to lose.”

Moscow Court Orders Navalny Jailed Again Over Protests

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 17:09


A Moscow court has ordered Russia’s most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny to serve 30 days in prison for his role in organizing massive protests against President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.

Navalny and hundreds of his supporters were detained during the demonstrations in Moscow and dozens of other cities on the eve of Putin’s inauguration to another six-year presidential term. Navalny was released a day later after being charged with inciting an unauthorized rally.

Navalny, who also organized massive street protests to coincide with Putin’s 2012 re-election, was barred from the presidential ballot in March because of a conviction on financial crimes charges he contends were fabricated.

In the election, Putin won against seven challengers, garnering almost 77 percent of the vote. International observers criticized the poll, saying there had been no real choice in the election and complained of widespread allegations of ballot rigging. Russian election officials described the violations as “minor,” but said they were investigating.

Putin has been either president or prime minister since 1999.

Jamie Dettmer contributed to this story.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Now Adapted as Video Game

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 17:02


Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth — err, game.

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words — most of them — in his seminal book, “Walden.” They make up the objective of a video game that seeks to translate his exploits in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, into a playable digital reality.

“Walden, a Game” is adapted from the book and launches Tuesday on PlayStation 4. It has been available on computers for almost a year.

“Obviously it’s an odd or unique idea for a game,” said Tracy Fullerton, who conceived the idea and led the team that created it at the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab.

Fullerton told The Associated Press that “Walden” is one of her favorite books, and she thinks its meaning — a tale of escaping technology to appreciate nature — is topical today.

“It seemed to be a kind of game that he was playing,” Fullerton said. So she created one to mimic it.

Fullerton acknowledges the irony of trumpeting nature in a video game but said she hopes the game will be more contemplative than others.

Players drop in with a half-built cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. From there, they can essentially decide everything they do over eight seasons (Thoreau thought a year was better divided into eight parts than four), which takes six hours of real time.

They can finish building the house and toil in the fields, or they can venture out into 70 acres of virtual nature.

The objective is to find the right balance between survival — players can’t die, but they can faint — and fulfillment. As players seek more inspiration from nature, interacting with animals and trees, the actual game world becomes more colorful and more physically beautiful, Fullerton said.

The team at USC spent more than a decade creating the game, she said. Team members consulted literature and history experts to ensure the accuracy of its portrayals, and the game’s sound designer recorded all of its audible elements in the real Walden woods.

It’s available for free for teachers, and a curriculum is available online, but Fullerton said the game’s primary purpose is entertainment.

Joseph Simpson, a software developer from Ohio, said he reads Walden every year and discovered the game while reading about Fullerton.

“I immediately, without hesitation, bought it and started playing it,” he said. Simpson said the essence of the book has been implemented into the game in a way that doesn’t corrupt it with too many objectives or missions.

“I may not have to read Walden this year because I can play the game,” he said.

Experts on the textual version of “Walden” also were intrigued.

Robert Hudspeth, a former president of the Thoreau Society and an English professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California, said he has heard of the game but hasn’t played it.

“I will say, however, that anything that might spark an interest in Thoreau’s writing is welcome,” Hudspeth said. “If playing a game stimulates the players to go to the books, then I’m all for it!”

The Democracy Fighters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:52
Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans in the 1946 New York May Day Parade – link

I first learned about the passionate Abraham Lincoln Brigade when I read Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction.  I was immediately perplexed as to why any American would voluntarily travel halfway across the globe and risk his or her life to participate enthusiastically in a belligerent foreign conflict–a conflict which the United States government itself was failing to legitimize by not recognizing its gravity.

The strike contrast between the volunteers and the American government regarding the Spanish Civil War to me was most perplexing: while the American government remained neutral and strayed from taking a stance, a group of more than two thousand Americans radically and readily went against the views of their mainstream political infrastructure and wholeheartedly embraced not only a definite stance, but an extreme one that required deep political understanding and foresight clear from the blurry misconceptions clouding the average anti-communist American.

Initially,I myself labeled these volunteers as un-American because of their theoretical betrayal of the non-interventionist American philosophy, without realizing that the fascism they were fighting would from the basis of the dangerous ideologies that the American government desperately fought during World War II. This inaccurate perspective changed further after I read Part 1 of Carroll’s collective biography detailing the motives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers.

One of the flags of the Lincoln Battalion – link

I now have a better understanding of the overall mentality that these volunteers took with them as they braced themselves to fight fascism in Spain. I found it helpful to realize that the volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade were of their time pushed by the Great Depression to ideologically embrace alternative political belief systems— mainly communism. In other words, they sought to accept a system that would be able to replace capitalism, which they viewed as an inadequate and failed way of life because of the socioeconomic collapse of American society.

I also felt this understanding clarified my confusion when coupled with Carroll’s emphasis on the fact that communism during the time was not yet viewed as a totalitarian menace as it was after World War II or a failed ideology as it was in the 1990s. Most volunteers were young, single and from urban immigrant backgrounds and broken families, meaning that the Great Depression had the most impact on hurting them economically and hindering their relationships, oftentimes forcing them to face hardship as they moved to cities nearby in pursuit of employment.

A sentiment of outrage and frustration over the injustice of their situation emerged, leading to their support of an idealistic, hopeful philosophy and ultimately their decisions to join the fight abroad. The police brutality against these protestors was another pusher; Steve Nelson was one of the many examples of a future volunteer developing a sense of indignation from these occurrences.

Furthermore, I was previously unaware of how having a united interracial group to defeat an elite class was central to the color-blind agenda of communism. Harry Haywood embodied all that pushed most volunteers: he was an African-American communist who believed in the militant alliance with white workers to enable the end of African American oppression based on capitalism and would later volunteer after witnessing first hand job discrimination during his move to New York City. I quickly learned, however, each volunteer had their own individual story of radicalization that galvanized them politically.

Though there seemed to be overall feelings of dissent associated with the American capitalist society in all accounts, the volunteers themselves were connected to American principles. The Spanish struggle itself was compared to the American Civil War. Both had fighting that occurred to protect a symbolic government of the people from an illegal and unjust rebellion. Volunteers, thus, saw themselves in an encouraging light, as protectors of social change, and more broadly, democracy.

Furthermore, I found Carroll’s suggestion that the Lincoln Brigade represented the United States to be extremely powerful, as volunteers from most walks of life and racial backgrounds sought to unleash their feelings against the dangerous Franco regime directly. This depiction of the volunteers, along with understanding the evolution and context of their mentality, stripped me of my anti-American perception. If anything, volunteers saw themselves fighting on behalf of the future of the United States and the rest of the world.

For other Americans, they saw the fascist ideology as a threat to independent creativity altogether. I also thought it was progressive that the Lincoln Brigade had African Americans fight alongside white Americans so early in the 20th century, with opportunity to rise to leadership positions for the first time militaristically in American history.

The Young Communist League formed a social comfort compensating the frustration of the marketplace, allowing a community that could contribute to world and political coherence when American society meanwhile seemed perplexing.

Thus, I finally understand how, when the Spanish Civil War ignited, a group of young Americans— inexperienced militaristically but politically aware— chose to fight the ideologically-destructive fascism. Their fight was one for democracy worldwide, and a true fight motivated independent of their government’s stance. And so, approximately 80 years later, I have grown to further appreciate those who, like the men and women of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, always stand for democracy, those who tirelessly act for justice and humanitarianism even when their government fails to do so, and those who continue to push the envelope in fighting for policies and political perspectives that bring peace for millions of Americans and global citizens worldwide. With every political decision we make, we too can be rebels for democracy.

BONUS VIDEO: Woody Guthrie’s 1944 recording of his song ‘Jarama Valley’ in support of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades

Group Seeks Support for Jailed Iranian Teacher on Hunger Strike

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:35


An international human rights group is urging people to write to Iran’s government to ask it to free a jailed Iranian teachers’ rights advocate who has been on a hunger strike for three weeks.

London-based Amnesty International made the appeal in a Tuesday tweet linking to an online petition for the release of Esmail Abdi, a Tehran-based Iranian mathematics teacher and trade unionist. He has been serving a six-year prison sentence since November 2016 on charges of spreading propaganda and committing national security crimes.

In a Monday tweet, Amnesty said Abdi has been on a hunger strike since April 24. It had reported the start of his hunger strike on April 25, saying it learned of the protest from his wife.

Amnesty has described Abdi, a board member of the Tehran Teachers’ Trade Association, as a prisoner of conscience. It said he began his hunger strike to protest Iran’s suppression of trade unions and harsh conditions of his detention at Tehran’s Evin prison.

Iranian authorities first arrested Abdi in June 2015 as he was planning to attend an overseas education conference to promote his campaign for quality education in Iran. They released him on bail in May 2016 after he went on a two-week hunger strike. But an appeals court upheld a six-year prison sentence against him in October of that year, and authorities jailed him again the following month.

Amnesty said forming trade unionsand engaging in collective bargaining and strikesare universal human rights.

Iran’s security forces have frequently detained Iranians engaging in such activities as part of a crackdown on anti-government protests that have persisted across the country since December.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian service.

The Florida Felon Leading in Fight to Restore Voting Rights

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 16:33


In 2004, Desmond Meade, while serving a 15-year prison sentence for a drug offense in Florida, got a break. An appeals court returned his conviction to the original trial bench, allowing him to plead guilty to a lesser charge and get out of prison in three years, most of which he had already served.

But his freedom came with a price, something that didn’t quite register with him at the time: as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors, Meade agreed to give up his civil rights: the right to vote, to serve on a jury and to run for office.

“At the time, when I first accepted the plea deal, I didn’t understand the consequences,” Meade says.

Fourteen years and a pair of college and law degrees later, Meade, now 50, still can’t vote; his application to regain his civil rights was rejected in 2011. The reason: a new Florida law that requires felons like him to wait for seven years before they could apply for rights restoration.

Home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s disenfranchised felons, Florida has become a battleground in a national debate over felony disenfranchisement laws. With lawmakers deeply divided over the issue, Meade says he wants the state’s voters to change the system when they head to the polls on Nov. 6.

He’s promoting a ballot initiative that would amend the state’s constitution, restoring the voting rights of all felons in Florida (except those convicted of murder and sexual assault) after they’ve completed the terms of their sentence.

The measure enjoys broad voter support. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February showed that 67 percent of Floridians were in favor of restoring the voting rights of felons other than those convicted of murder and sexual assault. Another poll showed support at 71 percent.

“We’re going to change the system,” Meade says confidently. “What we’re doing is taking the power out of the hands of politicians and we’re allowing the citizens of the state of Florida to decide whether or not folks should have a second chance, to be able to vote.”

Rates of Voter ‘Disenfranchised’ Soar

Meade is one of more than 6 million American citizens who have lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction. Their number has soared in recent decades as the U.S. prison population has ballooned.

Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affect African-Americans like Meade. One in 13 African-Americans of voting age can’t vote. It is a rate more than four times higher than for other races, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy organization. In Florida more than 1-in-5 African-Americans are disenfranchised.

But Meade says felony disenfranchisement crosses racial and political lines.

“This is what I can tell you: there are three times as many people who can’t vote in Florida who are not black,” Meade says.

When it comes to letting felons vote, the United States is out of line with the rest of the democratic world, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.

Some democracies such as Canada allow prisoners to vote and politicians to campaign inside prisons. Other countries such as Britain restore prisoners’ voting rights after serving their time.

“There is no other democratic nation that takes away the right to vote for the rest of your life as is done in some states in the U.S.,” Mauer says.

States Set Voter Qualifications

The U.S. Constitution gives the states the right to set voter qualifications and to disqualify anyone who participates in “rebellion, or other crime.” That has led to an assortment of voting rights laws for felons, ranging from the most liberal — Maine and Vermont, which impose no restrictions on felons – to the strictest in four states, such as Florida, that permanently revoke the voting rights of convicted felons.

This panoply of statutes has led to confusion over who has the right to vote, sometimes with harsh consequences. Last month, a Texas judge sentenced a 43-year-old African-American woman to five years in prison for voting illegally in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release from prison.

Defenders of the practice say there are compelling reasons to bar felons from voting, a practice that dates as far back as ancient Greece and came to the United States from England.

“The short answer is: if you’re not willing to follow the law, you should not be making the law for everyone else,” says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.

The longer answer, Clegg says, is that voters must meet “certain minimum objective standards of responsibility and commitment to laws” before they’re empowered with voting rights.

“When you think about it, we don’t let everybody vote,” he says. “We don’t let children vote, we don’t let non-citizens vote, we don’t let mentally incapacitated people vote, and we don’t let people who have committed crimes against fellow citizens.”

Because of a high rate of recidivism among criminals, Clegg says felons must wait for a period of time to prove they’ve “turned over a new leaf” before they’re allowed to vote.

“Unfortunately, you can’t assume somebody is no longer a criminal just because they’re no longer in prison,” he says.

But advocates of broader rights say that the high rate of recidivism among felons is itself an argument for restoring their voting rights.

“When people come out of prison, if we hope to reduce recidivism, we need to have these people connected with positive institutions within the community,” Mauer says.

Another frequent argument advocates make is that the right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship. And just as a felon doesn’t lose the right to get married or divorced or to buy property, so, too, he or she shouldn’t lose the right to vote.

“If we say to people, you may have done your time in prison, but we’re still not going to permit you to vote, that’s essentially sending a message that they’re a second-class citizen,” Mauer says.

‘Returning Citizens’

That’s how Meade, the married father of five, feels.

“I think voting is probably one of the purest expressions of citizenship,” Meade says. “As long as I’m not allowed to vote, I’m only a second-class citizen, if that at all.”

After the governor’s board informed him in 2011 that his application had been rejected – five years after he’d submitted it – Mead had to wait another two years before he could reapply.

But instead of waiting, he founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a grassroots organization run by felons who call themselves “returning citizens,” while attending law school. The organization helps felons navigate Florida’s cumbersome system of restoring felons’ civil rights and apply to the board of clemency.

The board, made up of the governor and three elected cabinet members, meets quarterly to review about 100 cases from a backlog of more than 20,000. In some cases, applicants have to wait 10 years or more before the board hears their case.

“If I help you file an application today, you’ll not know anything about this application until May 2025,” Meade says.

Meade graduated from Florida International University College of Law in 2014 only to realize that he couldn’t take the bar exam because he’d lost his civil rights. But by then he’d found a calling.

“Me not being able to vote, me not being able to practice law is not what sits at the heart of my passion,” he says. “What sits at the heart of my passion is seeing my fellow citizens not being able to vote.”