Julian Assange: Sweden drops rape investigation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

 

Julian Assange: Sweden drops rape investigation

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at Westminster Magistrates court on 11 April 2019Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Assange was arrested in London after Ecuador abruptly withdrew its protection in April

Prosecutors in Sweden have dropped an investigation into a rape allegation made against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in 2010.

Assange, who denies the accusation, has avoided extradition to Sweden for seven years after seeking refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012.

The 48-year-old Australian was evicted in April and sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for breaching his bail conditions.

He is currently being held at Belmarsh prison in London.

The Swedish investigation had been shelved in 2017 but was re-opened earlier this year following his eviction from the embassy.

In June, the then UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javed, formally approved an extradition request from the US where Assange is wanted on 18 counts related to the mass leak of American secrets.

What did the prosecutors say?

Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson took the decision to “discontinue the investigation regarding Julian Assange”, the Swedish Prosecution Authority said.

“The reason for this decision is that the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question,” it added.

Media caption Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorean embassy in London

Ms Persson said: “I would like to emphasize that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events.

“Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed; however, my overall assessment is that the evidence situation has been weakened to such an extent that that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation.”

The prosecutors said the decision had been taken after interviews with seven witnesses in the case.

What was the Swedish investigation about?

Assange was accused of rape by a woman and sexual assault by another one following a Wikileaks conference in Stockholm in 2010. He has always denied the allegations, saying the sex was consensual.

Media caption Who is Julian Assange?

He also faced investigations for molestation and unlawful coercion, but these cases were dropped in 2015 because time had run out.

Barr contradicted and struggled with key findings of Muller report

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ABC NEWS)

 

Barr contradicted and struggled with key findings of Mueller report

PHOTO: Attorney General William Barr responds as he is asked a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 1, 2019.Susan Walsh/AP
WATCHAttorney General William Barr defends himself in Senate Judiciary Committee hearing

During his four-hour back and forth with senators on Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr questioned, and at times seemed to contradict, key findings in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

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Time and again, faced with questions from probing Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats about the report’s contents, Barr also seemed unfamiliar with some of the report’s significant details.

When Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., brought up how then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort shared polling data in August 2016 with his former business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik — identified by prosecutors as having ties to Russian intelligence — Barr struggled.

“What information was shared?” Barr asked, prompting Booker to reply, “Polling data was shared, sir. It’s in the report.”

“With who?” Barr followed up.

PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Barr testified on the Justice Departments investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.Win Mcnamee/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Barr testified on the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.more +

The special counsel’s team had concluded there weren’t sufficient grounds to prosecute Manafort’s actions as a crime of conspiracy, but a top prosecutor in Mueller’s office previously described Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik as being at the “heart” of the probe about whether Trump’s campaign had coordinated with the Russian government.

In another instance, when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., quoted the Mueller report about “multiple links between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government” and that in some instances “the campaign was receptive to the offer whereas others they were not,” Barr indicated that he did not understand “what communications that referred to.”

Leahy said, “You have the report. I just gave you the page from the report.”

At another point Leahy questioned if Trump had “fully cooperated” with Mueller, as Barr wrote, “by instructing a former aide to tell the attorney general to un-recuse himself, shut down the investigation and declare the president did nothing wrong.”

“Where is that in the report?” Barr asked. When Leahy pointed to the page number, Barr muttered, “Right.”

At other times, the attorney general appeared to directly contradict key findings in the Mueller report, including when giving his view of the interactions between Trump and then-White House Counsel Don McGahn about the president’s attempts to get rid of Mueller.

During questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Barr stated that Trump had attempted to remove Mueller because of “conflict of interest” and not to terminate the investigation. He said the president had directed McGahn to correct a New York Times article that reported on what Trump had told McGahn only because he deemed it inaccurate.

According to the Mueller report, however, evidence showed that “the President was not just seeking an examination of whether conflicts existed but instead was looking to use asserted conflicts as a way to terminate the special counsel.” The Mueller report also stated, “There is also evidence that the President knew that he should not have made those calls to McGahn.”

“The report is over 400 pages,” a Justice Department official told ABC News. “It would be impossible for anyone to remember every detail of the report off-hand.”

Asked whether Barr’s testimony contradicted Mueller’s findings, the Justice Department official answered, “No.”

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris, right, listen as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2019.Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris, right, listen as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2019.more +

Maybe one of the most contentious moments came when Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris asked Barr if he, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or anyone in his executive office had questioned or reviewed the underlying evidence supporting the report’s findings, and Barr replied, “No.”

“In the Department of Justice, we have cross memos every day coming up,” Barr said. “We don’t go and look at the underlying evidence. We take the characterization of the evidence as true.”

Harris shot back, questioning Barr’s decision to accept charging recommendations without reviewing underlying evidence when making a “critical decision” about “the person who holds the highest office in the land and whether or not that person committed a crime.”

“I think you’ve made it clear, sir, that you have not looked at the evidence and we can move on,” Harris said.

ABC News’ Alexander Mallin contributed to this report.

Trump Was In The Room When Illegal Payments Were Being Discussed

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NBC NEWS)

 Ohio on July 18, 2016.John Taggart / Bloomberg via Getty Images file Dec. 13, 2018 / 3:41 PM ESTBy Tom Winter

Donald Trump was the third person in the room in August 2015 when his lawyer Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker discussed ways Pecker could help counter negative stories about Trump’s relationships with women, NBC News has confirmed.

As part of a nonprosecution agreement disclosed Wednesday by federal prosecutors, American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, admitted that “Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”

The “statement of admitted facts” says that AMI admitted making a $150,000 payment “in concert with the campaign,” and says that Pecker, Cohen and “at least one other member of the campaign” were in the meeting. According to a person familiar with the matter, the “other member” was Trump.

David Pecker attends an event in Paris in 2012.
David Pecker attends an event in Paris in 2012.Francois Durand / Getty Images

Trump was first identified as attending the meeting by The Wall Street Journal.

Daniel Goldman, an NBC News analyst and former assistant U.S. attorney said the agreement doesn’t detail what Trump said and did in the meeting. “But if Trump is now in the room, as early as August of 2015 and in combination with the recording where Trump clearly knows what Cohen is talking about with regarding to David Pecker, you now squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which investigated Cohen’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, declined to comment.

Michael Cohen sentenced to 3 years in prison

DEC. 13, 201802:37

McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate, and her lawyers have said that the National Enquirer paid her $150,000 in August 2016 as part of a “catch-and-kill” strategy to keep the story from circulating publicly.

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When Cohen pleaded guilty to arranging the payments in August, he said he had done so “at the direction” of an unnamed candidate, and that a $150,000 payment prior to the 2016 election was “for the principal purpose of influencing” the election. The meeting between Cohen, Pecker and unnamed other parties to discuss suppressing stories was referenced in the criminal information document to which Cohen pleaded guilty. The document also refers to “at least one other member of the campaign” being present.

The statement of admitted facts says that AMI’s “principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.” Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, has said the payments were made to spare Trump’s family from embarrassment.

I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly……

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On Wednesday, Judge William Pauley sentenced Cohen to a total of 36 months behind bars, and three years of post-release supervision, for tax evasion, violating campaign finance law and other charges. The judge ordered him to pay almost $1.4 million in restitution and forfeit $500,000, while fining him $50,000 for lying to Congress. Cohen must turn himself in to start serving his sentence by March 6.

At his sentencing, Cohen said that “time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up [Trump’s] dirty deeds.”

President Trump tweeted after the sentencing that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tom Winter

Tom Winter is a producer and reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit based in New York, covering crime, courts, terrorism, and financial fraud on the East Coast.

Michigan becomes first state in Midwest to allow recreational marijuana

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CBS NEWS)

 

Michigan becomes first state in Midwest to allow recreational marijuana

In a new law that took effect Thursday, Michigan is now the first Midwestern state to legally allow recreational marijuana. It’s the 10th state to legalize recreational pot.

It could take a year before Michigan starts licensing medical marijuana shops to sell to recreational users. Critics worry the wait could lead to high demand on the black market where there’s no oversight, reports CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste.

Stuart Carter showed us the products at his medical marijuana shop in Detroit.

“We’ve had people show up. Unfortunately, we have to shut them down,” Carter said.

Carter said he is eager to sell recreational marijuana at the store, but the state is requiring shops to go through a lengthy application process.

“They’re not going to take applications for about a year, and then there’s going to be the vetting process,” Carter said.

Though people will have to wait to buy recreational pot in stores, the new law allows people 21 or older to keep 10 ounces in their home and grow 12 marijuana plants for personal use.

“It’s going to be the marijuana capital of America,” said Scott Greenlee, the president of Healthy and Productive Michigan. He opposes Michigan’s high possession limit, allowing people to carry up to 2.5 ounces. It’s the largest recreational carry limit in the country.

“It’s too much,” Greenlee said. “That’s going to lead to a lot of crime as well. People are going to realize that all of this product is sitting around. Our law enforcement community is very concerned about is all that marijuana in all those large quantities.”

The new law may be good news for low-level pot offenders. More than 20,000 people were arrested last year for marijuana possession or use that is now legal.

California legalized recreational pot use in 2016. Since then, San Francisco district attorney George Gascon has cleared over a thousand misdemeanor marijuana cases.

“Quite frankly, it can impact your ability to get employment,” Gascon said.

Minor charges, Gascon believes, can have a major impact.

“In some places, it will impact your ability to get public housing or get subsidized housing,” Gascon said. “It may impact your ability to go into military services.”

But Greenlee said most low-level offenders don’t face severe consequences.

“Typically what’s being dismissed is a ticket, a fine,” Greenlee said. “It’s very similar to if… we’re going to 15 miles over the speed limit. We’ll get a ticket, we’ll pay our ticket and move on.”

One county prosecutor in Michigan told CBS News he has already dismissed 50 pending cases for misdemeanor marijuana offenders that are no longer illegal as of Thursday. Under the new law, it is still illegal to use pot in public, on college campuses, and while driving.

Federal Judge Orders White House To Restore CNN’s Jim Acosta’s ‘Hard Pass’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN AND ABC NEWS)

 

A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump White House to immediately restore the press pass of CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta as the case progresses after the network filed a lawsuit suit claiming that revoking it violated the First Amendment.

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The judge repeatedly emphasized that his decision was based on the Fifth Amendment and that Acosta was denied his right to due process.

“If at some point after restoring the hard pass the government would like to move to vacate the restraining order on the grounds that it has fulfilled its due process obligations then it may, of course, do so and I will promptly address that and then the remaining basis of the (temporary restraining order),” U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly said.

Speaking after the ruling, Ted Boutros, an attorney for CNN said the news organization is “extremely pleased with the ruling today.”

“A great day for the First Amendment and journalism,” he said. “We’re very excited to have Mr. Acosta be able to go back and get his hard pass and report the news about the White House.”

Acosta thanked journalistic colleagues for their support and the judge for his ruling.

“Let’s go back to work,” Acosta said.

PHOTO: CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta smiles as he departs after a judge temporarily restored his White House press credentials following a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, Nov. 16, 2018.Carlos Barria/Reuters
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta smiles as he departs after a judge temporarily restored his White House press credentials following a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, Nov. 16, 2018.more +

CNN and Acosta filed suit against President Donald Trump and top aides on Tuesday for stripping Acosta, without warning, of his access to the White House, where he works daily. The indefinite revocation of Acosta’s press credentials, known as a “hard pass,” came on the heels of a heated exchange between Trump and Acosta on Nov. 7.

PHOTO: CNNs White House correspondent Jim Acosta arrives for a hearing at the U.S. District Court on Nov. 16, 2018 in Washington.Mark Wilson/Getty Images
CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta arrives for a hearing at the U.S. District Court on Nov. 16, 2018 in Washington.more +

Earlier in the week, CNN and Acosta filed an emergency motion to have Acosta’s press pass immediately reinstated as the court case continues and asked for a ruling from Kelly, a Trump-appointed U.S. district judge.

The American Civil Liberties Union in a statement applauded Friday’s ruling saying it “reaffirms that no one, not even the president, is above the law.

“The White House surely hoped that expelling a reporter would deter forceful questioning, but the court’s ruling will have the opposite effect,” Ben Wizner, the ACLU’s director of speech, privacy and technology project wrote in a statement. “The freedom of the press is a bedrock principle, and our democracy is strengthened when journalists challenge our leaders rather than defer to them.”

This is a developing story. Please refresh for details.

Why the Arab World Needs Democracy Now

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

(BY JAMAL KHASHOGGI)

Why the Arab World Needs Democracy Now

In April Jamal Khashoggi gave this speech, saying the dangerous idea of the benevolent autocrat, the just dictator, is being revived in the Arab world.

By Jamal Khashoggi

Mr. Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist.

Image
A Saudi flag at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Jamal Khashoggi was killed. Credit Ozan Kose/Agence France-Press — Getty Images

Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was killed by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, was the keynote speaker at a conference in April organized by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington. Excerpts from his speech, edited for clarity and length, are below.

I am from Saudi Arabia, where the issues of democracy and Islam are very much relevant. When a Saudi official wanted to brush away the question of democracy, in the past, he would always raise the question of whether democracy is compatible with Islam.

The debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy conclusively ended with the coming of the Arab Spring, when the people of the Arab world, — especially the youth, and even the Islamist, including some Salafis, who were always critical of democracy — supported the protests for democratic and political change. Other Salafis remained very critical of democracy, viewing it as “kufr,” or un-Islamic, based on the belief that democracy represents a rejection of religious values.

The long voting lines during the 2012 elections in Tunisia and Egypt clearly demonstrated that the people of the Arab world were ready for change. They enthusiastically participated in democratic elections, including Islamist parties that had often been the focus of the debate on Islam’s compatibility with democracy.

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Those images from Egypt and Tunisia of men, women, young, and old going to the polls should be contrasted with the sham elections we see today in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab world. This is an argument we can use against anyone who might claim that “Arabs are not ready for democracy.”

Today, Saudi Arabia is struggling with different aspects of modernity — with cinemas, art, entertainment, mixing of the sexes, opening up to the world, rejecting radicalism. The tight grip that the religious establishment has had on social life is gradually loosening.

But while we’re pursuing all these forms of modernity, the Saudi leaders are still not interested in democracy, They aren’t advancing the old, lame excuse that democracy is not compatible with Islam, however. Instead, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic they’re saying that absolute monarchy is our preferred form of government.

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Indeed, we are living in the age of authoritarianism. Some people believe that it is a better form of political rule. They argue that societies need a great leader and that democracy will undermine the ability of the great leader to guide his people to a better future.

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Today around a dinner table in Riyadh, Cairo or Amman, you are likely to hear intellectuals who were once considered liberals, who once supported liberty, political change and democracy, say, “Arabs are not ready for democracy.” If you push back against this argument, you would be told: “Even if Arabs are ready for democracy, they don’t know how to take advantage of it. They always make the wrong choice.”

A related argument is, “The Islamist and the Muslim Brotherhood have kidnapped the Arab Spring.” In my country, a variant of this argument is: “The Saudis don’t know how to choose. If we have democracy, they will not vote out of their conscience, they will vote based on their tribal loyalties.”

A popular argument in the Arab world is that we need a strong leader. You can hear it in Egypt from an Egyptian businessman who supports the ruling regime. You can hear it from a doubtful Jordanian, maybe even a doubtful Tunisian who seeks a return to the old order.

A Saudi friend of mine who was raised abroad openly defends the term “benevolent autocracy.” He is prepared to write about the value of benevolent autocracy in an American newspaper and thinks it is the best choice for Saudi Arabia.

It is the old notion of the “mustabidu al-adl,” or the just dictator, that died with the rise of Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a late-19th-century Arab-Muslim reformist of Syrian origin. The Arab and Muslim intellectuals who followed Kawakibi supported democracy or at least some variant of it.

Regrettably, though, the idea of the benevolent autocrat, the just dictator, is being revived in the Arab world. A chorus of anti-democratic Arab and non-Arab voices are using the media and the lobbyists to oppose democracy. I’m told that at the Riyadh International Book Fair in March, which I was not able to attend, one of the books on display was called “Against the Arab Spring.”

Democracy in the Arab world is also under attack from radical Islamists who are making a comeback as the so-called Islamic State or as the Salafis fighting in Libya alongside Khalifa Hifter (who was a general in Muammar Gaddafi’s army and is now backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). They preach against democracy in the mosques — and through acts of violence.

We must reassure people in the Arab world who either have lost hope in democracy because of its perceived failures or because they fell victim to the concentrated propaganda about democracy coming from television networks run by states and the intellectuals aligned with them.

When I use the term “democracy” I mean it in the broader sense of the term that overlaps with values such as liberty, checks and balances, accountability and transparency. We were aiming for these goals in the form of good governance, equality, and justice in the Arab world. There is another reason we need democracy now in the Arab world: to stop mass violence.

Today, there are two kinds of Arab countries. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, need democracy for good governance and the checks and balances it brings.

But for war-torn countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen, democracy would lead to some form of power sharing. It can be along the lines of the Afghanistan arrangement, where you bring all of the factions in one huge room and force them into an agreement on how to share power. The chief reason the wars in these countries are continuing is the lack of a mechanism for power sharing.

The immediate need for Libya, Syria and Yemen is not good governance, but a mechanism to stop the killing. Inevitably, the question of good governance will emerge. There is great hope for democracy in other countries that have not been mired in civil or internal conflict, such as Tunisia, which is struggling toward a lasting democratic system.

Many of my Tunisian friends, despite the progress they have made, are also worried about democracy. They do not want to appear to be preaching to the rest of the Arab world. They simply want to be left alone. Yet I still think that Tunisians have an important responsibility.

News channels that are supportive of freedom and political change in the Middle East should spend a considerable amount of time covering even municipal elections in Tunisia. Every Saudi, every Egyptian and every Syrian should see what the Tunisians are enjoying. I hope it will inspire the rest of the Arab world to work for a similar form of government for themselves.

We need to defend the rights of the Arab people to have democracy in our own countries, in our own localities, but at the same time we must speak to foreign leaders, foreign powers and foreign parliamentarians. They have a role to play and many of them have begun to lose hope in the prospects of Arab democracy.

Some of them are now repeating the old racist statement, “Arabs are not ready for democracy [because they are Arabs].” The Trump administration has zero interest in supporting democracy in the Arab world. Even the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has suggested that there will be little political change in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia.

People are losing hope in democracy because of the failure of the Arab Spring revolts. They’re afraid of ending up like Syria. Many Arab regimes, their television networks, their writers, their commentators, are trying to scare people off democracy by actively promoting this idea.

Both Arab citizens and foreign leaders are affected by the limited reforms that Arab leaders are pursuing. In Saudi Arabia there are serious reforms that Prince Mohammed is leading. Many of my Saudi colleagues are saying I should support them. I do support them.

My position is that we should take what we have and build on it.

When Mr. Macron stood next to Prince Mohammed, he made this point and he was correct to do so. We need to support the crown prince in his effort to reform Saudi Arabia because if we let him down, he will come under pressure from radical elements who are not willing to reform.

These limited reforms and the general political condition of the Arab world today are adding strength to the argument of the anti-democracy forces. This unfortunate reality puts more responsibility on our shoulders to resume our work and to redouble our efforts to push for democracy in the Arab world as a realistic choice for people and a solution to the failure of many Arab states.

Jamal Khashoggi was a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.

Sen. Booker Releases Judge Kavanaugh Doc’s Republicans Trying To Hide From Public

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HUFFINGTON POST)

 

Cory Booker Releases Confidential Documents During Kavanaugh Hearing

Hawaii’s Sen. Mazie Hirono followed Booker’s threat to publish formerly confidential documents with her own release during the third day of hearings.
X

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) released formerly confidential emails from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about racial profiling and racial discrimination at the start of the third day of confirmation hearings on Thursday, around an hour after threatening to do so.

The dramatic move appeared to defy Republicans who had shielded the documents from public view, and it seemed to risk breaking Senate rules. Senate Judiciary Committee staffers for Republican and Democratic officials told The Washington Post, however, that the committee cleared the documents for public viewing before either senator posted them to their websites. A spokesman for Bill Burck, the Republican lawyer overseeing the approvals, also told the publication that the emails Booker released were cleared last night.

The precise timing is not yet clear.

A spokesman for Booker said in a statement that the senator and unnamed Democratic colleagues “were able to shame the committee” into releasing the documents. Yet a spokeswoman for Hirono told HuffPost the senator did not ask the committee to release the emails that she made public around 10:30 a.m. before she published them online. Hirono did not know they would be cleared for public release, the spokeswoman said.

Booker was the first to threaten to make the documents public, saying he would “knowingly violate” the rules and accept any punishment for his action, which he considered to be civil disobedience. Booker said the emails, taken from Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House, do not pose a threat to national security.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asks Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh a question during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asks Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh a question during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the emails Booker referenced had, in fact, just been deemed non-confidential, saying “the process worked.” Lee offered to work with Democrats in the committee to make other confidential documents public, too.

When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) reminded Booker that he could lose his seat for breaking Senate rules, prior to the documents’ release, Booker responded: “Bring it.”

At the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) argued that all the committee confidential documents should be publicly released, saying, “We are literally trying to get at the truth here.”

Booker’s documents, released Thursday afternoon, reveal that while Kavanaugh “generally” supports “race-neutral” security measures, the nominee also believed there was an “interim” question on whether to use racial profiling before neutral security measures are deployed. The emails between White House staffers were sent from mid-2001 and early 2002.

Messages released by Hirono reference unspecified government programs. Kavanaugh said in June 2002 that any such programs “targeting” native Hawaiians “as a group” are “subject to strict scrutiny” and “of questionable validity under the Constitution.” Hirono said in the hearing that her “colleagues from Alaska should be deeply troubled” by the nominee’s views because they would also apply to native Alaskans. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is seen as a possible swing vote in the confirmation process.

Booker’s colleagues Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Hirono also rallied around him, pledging their support in the event Booker faced “retribution,” as Durbin put it. Hirono said she would “defy anyone.”

“You want everything to be made public? All your emails? I don’t think you do,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded at the hearing.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) jumped in to argue that the process of categorizing documents as committee confidential was far from transparent and perhaps unfair.

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“There is no process for ‘committee confidential,’” she said, adding that Democrats were not consulted in the decision to make certain documents private.

The release was in line with what progressive groups urged Democratic senators to do Wednesday: Go around Grassley and release the 141,000 pages of documents from Kavanaugh’s record that are not permitted for public release or public discussion. Members of the committee can read and discuss the documents among themselves, but they cannot question Kavanaugh on their contents in the hearings.

Read the documents that Booker released below. Hirono also uploaded documents, which are now on her website.

Is Russian social media giant VKontakte sidestepping the GDPR?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Is Russian social media giant VKontakte sidestepping the GDPR? One user is trying to find out.

As if revealing their users’ personal data to Russian authorities wasn’t bad enough, VKontakte may now run in serious trouble in Europe // Martinsson Serg, CC2.0

Russian social media network VKontakte has been having a bad few months. Multiple platform users have been prosecuted for their posts, and the company has been publicly shamed for its lack of transparency regarding how it shares user data with law enforcement authorities.

Now, VKontakte (VK) is facing a new privacy-related challenge: Kristian Shinkevich, a Belarussian activist living in Poland, is demanding that VK give him all the personal data that it has pertaining to him. The company has yet to comply. And in the meantime, it has suspended his access to the account.

Shinkevich first began wondering about VK’s data collection practices after he faced legal threats for participating in a demonstration in Belarus. Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from his university, where he says an administrator told him that the school had access to all their students’ VKontakte data, including which posts they had liked. In his case, this would have revealed his involvement with demonstrations.

Between this, and the fact that other Belarussian activists have been arrested for VKontakte posts promoting protests (an indication that authorities in Belarus also monitor activity on the social network), Shinkevich found himself wanting to know more about VK’s data collection practices.

So he looked to the European Union’s newly-instituted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a set of policies aimed at standardizing the handling of personal information by companies and organizations. Under the GDPR, any company that processes the personal information of EU subjects must comply with certain rules regarding the protection and transfer of such data.

Another provision stipulates that EU subjects have a right to access the personal information that companies retain about them, and that they have a right to know how this information is used.

Although Shinkevich is a citizen of a non-EU state, Belarus, he is entitled to request this information under the GDPR, as an EU resident (or “subject”, as described in the GDPR) in Poland. Additionally, despite the fact that VKontakte is a Russian company, it must still comply because it is providing services to EU subjects abroad and handling their information.

Noncompliance would give EU authorities the power to levy a fine of either 20 million euros or 4 percent global gross revenue, depending on which is higher.

When Shinkevich filed a request to VKontakte Support to get access to all the data VKontakte had collected about him, he received the requested file. He described what he found on Facebook:

Today I have received the file, and that’s freaking serious.

They store:
1. the whole name and surname changes history
2. groups and public pages I’ve managed
3. name of files uploaded, from which IP address, city, links to the deleted files, moreover, even simple voice messages from deleted conversations are there
4. complete list of files I’ve removed from my page, their exact address, name, date added, direct link – no matter that they all have been removed – voice messages, PDF documents etc.
5. adresses [sic] of pictures from Saved Photos album (protected). Direct links can be opened without being logged in
6. complete history of conversations, including removed, up to 27.06.2018 20:43:51 (the first message is dated 01.09.2016 21:40:30), with all the attachments including removed ones.
7. complete history of phone number ever linked to the account
8. history of password retrieval requests
9. all the comments and posts from my page timeline, including ones removed about 1-2 years ago (the section is titled “Messages posted on the user’s wall”)

This file is about 1,5 Mbytes but it has al [sic] the history of my activity on VK since 2016 (when my page was created).

Shinkevich was not surprised by what the file contained — but he was surprised at what it lacked. “I am pretty sure that what they have sent me is not the whole information, and they have much more,” he wrote on Facebook.

Indeed, VKontakte’s privacy policy indicates (in section 4.2.1) that the company processes a wide range of information about users and their activities, including but not limited to information about the “user’s operating system, type of a browser, geographic position, the Internet provider, contacts, data obtained accessing the camera, microphone and similar devices.” The policy does not clearly define how this data is treated after being processed. VK’s terms of service (7.2.5) indicate that “the Site Administration has the right to keep archive copies of the user Content for an indefinite period.”

Do these and other types of information qualify as “personal data”? It depends on where you ask the question. While Russian Federal Law 152 defines personal information as any information directly or indirectly related to a specific individual, the GDPR has a very specific breakdown of this wide interpretation. But as the terms of the GDPR apply to all companies providing services to EU subjects, VKontakte is required by law to follow these terms when dealing with customers in the EU.

When Shinkevich asked VKontakte for the rest of the information, it evaded his request. The company later blocked his access to his account at the end of July. His page is still online, but he cannot log in to it or reset his password.

When Russian news aggregator TJournal reached out to VKontakte, they said:

We didn’t block the user’s page. Access was restricted after the user changed several key parameters, including first name, last name, gender, and so on. Such activity is considered suspicious and could be proof that the account was sold or given to another person.

Restricting access to the page isn’t in any way related to the user’s GDPR information request.

Shinkevich has since filed a complaint with Poland’s personal data security service and has taken the controversial step of advocating that VKontakte be blocked in Poland.  He joins a growing number of voices urging users to stop using VKontakteand delete their pages.

Last year, VKontakte’s total revenue was over $200,000,000.If found in violation of GDPR, their fine would be ten percent of that amount. With upwards of two million EU users, the social network could soon pay a hefty price if it doesn’t address privacy concerns.

Lebanese woman sentenced to eight years for ‘insulting’ Egypt

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF AL JAZEERA NEWS)

 

Lebanese woman sentenced to eight years for ‘insulting’ Egypt

Tourist Mona el-Mazbouh complained about sexual harassment in profanity-laced video, with Egyptians responding in kind.

The day before being arrested, Mona el-Mazbouh posted a second video on Facebook apologising to Egyptians [Al Jazeera]
The day before being arrested, Mona el-Mazbouh posted a second video on Facebook apologising to Egyptians [Al Jazeera]

A Lebanese tourist who was arrested last month for posting a video on Facebook complaining about sexual harassment and conditions in Egypt, was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Cairo court on Saturday, her lawyer said.

Mona el-Mazbouh was arrested at Cairo airport at the end of her stay in Egypt after she published a 10-minute video on her Facebook page, laced with vulgarity and profanity against Egypt and Egyptians.

During her tirade, Mazbouh called Egypt a lowly, dirty country and Egyptian men pimps and women prostitutes.

Mazbouh, 24, complained of being sexually harassed by taxi drivers and young men in the street, as well as poor restaurant service during Ramadan, in addition to an incident in which money and other belongings were stolen.

Mazbouh said in the video that she had visited Egypt several times in the past four years.

A Cairo court found her guilty of deliberately spreading false rumours that would harm society, attacking religion and public indecency, judicial sources said.

An appeals court will now hear the case on July 29, according to Mazbouh’s lawyer, Emad Kamal.

“Of course, God willing, the verdict will change. With all due respect to the judiciary, this is a severe ruling. It is in the context of the law, but the court was applying the maximum penalty,” he said.

Kamal said a surgery Mazbouh underwent in 2006 to remove a blood clot from her brain has impaired her ability to control anger, a condition documented in a medical report he submitted to the court.

She also suffers from depression, Kamal added.

The video went viral, prompting many Egyptian women to take to social media with their own videos to express their anger at Mazbouh, while responding in kind against Lebanon and Lebanese women.

The day before she was arrested, Mazbouh posted a second video on Facebook apologising to Egyptians.

Egyptian rights activists say they are facing the worst crackdown in their history under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, accusing him of erasing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

His supporters say such measures are needed to stabilise Egypt after years of turmoil that drove away foreign investors and amid an uprising concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

Hezbollah set to tighten grip in Lebanon vote

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Hezbollah set to tighten grip in Lebanon vote

Almost no mention is made in election campaign of the Shiite terror group’s ties to Iran, role in the Syrian war or tensions with Israel

In this Friday, April 13, 2018 file photo, supporters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hold a banner with his portrait and Arabic words that reads: 'All the loyalty to the man of nobility,' during an election campaign speech, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

In this Friday, April 13, 2018 file photo, supporters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hold a banner with his portrait and Arabic words that reads: ‘All the loyalty to the man of nobility,’ during an election campaign speech, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT  — Few countries are as vulnerable to the Middle East’s mayhem as Lebanon, which has taken in a million refugees from the catastrophic war in neighboring Syria, seen the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group embroiled in that war and watched Saudi Arabia try to oust its prime minister.

Yet campaigning for Sunday’s parliamentary election, the first in nine years, has timidly sidestepped the big issues, leaving many Lebanese expecting more of the same. It’s especially galling for Lebanese concerned a still-dominant Hezbollah could drag the country into a looming Iran-Israel regional confrontation.

The vote is expected to be a test for the country’s Western-backed Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his Iran-backed Shiite opponent, Hezbollah, which is looking to tighten its grip and expand its presence in the 128-seat parliament — likely at Hariri’s expense.

Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouk, a member of Hariri’s inner circle, said the election is not “a Sunni-Shiite conflict but rather a conflict between a group that believes in a state and a nation, and another that has regional and Iranian leanings.”

The sides, however, can hardly govern effectively without each other and are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which incorporates members of the militant group.

In this picture taken on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is a candidate for the parliamentary elections which will be held on May 6, addresses a speech during an elections campaign, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Most of the campaigning by more than 500 candidates has revolved around platforms of stability and economic growth, with many of Lebanon’s civil war-era political titans set to return, including Lebanon’s aging Shiite parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally who has held the post for more than 25 years and who is virtually uncontested. Some warlords are passing on their seats to their sons, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

“Divisive issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons and the controversy over its participation in regional conflicts are almost entirely absent from the electoral campaigns, indicating implicit acceptance of the party’s domestic hegemony,” wrote analyst Joseph Bahout in an article for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

A new election law agreed on last year has opened cracks through which rivals within the Shiite community could potentially challenge Hezbollah, and political newcomers and independents could try to break through the monopoly long enjoyed by the political dynasties.

It also promises to shake things up by reorganizing Lebanon’s electoral map, consolidating 23 districts into 15, and awarding seats by share of the vote received, rather than winner-takes-all. The law also allows Lebanese expatriates to vote abroad for the first time, adding a new level of unpredictability to the mix.

The last time elections were held in Lebanon was in 2009. Since then, members of parliament have extended their terms twice, citing security threats linked to the war in neighboring Syria.

In this Friday, April 13, 2018 file photo, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a broadcast speech through a giant screen during an election campaign in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Lebanon is technically a parliamentary democracy but is shackled by a decades-old sectarian-based power-sharing system, and its politics are dominated by former warlords that have long exploited the system to perpetuate corruption and nepotism. All senior government positions are allocated according to sect, including the head of state, who should be a Christian, the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker, a Shiite. Parliament is divided equally between Christians and Muslims, with seats allotted according to religious sect.

The formula, based on outdated demographic data that does not account for nearly 200,000 Palestinians who are denied citizenship and a vote, allows people to vote according to their religious affiliations, not a political program.

A record number of first-time hopefuls are campaigning for change, urging voters to shun politicians who have drowned the country in corruption and debt. Many rose to prominence as organizers of protests over a 2015 trash collection crisis that left garbage in the streets for months and laid bare the extent of the public sector mismanagement plaguing Lebanon.

“It reflects a new mindset emerging among significant sectors of the Lebanese electorate, pointing in the direction of making a small dent in the religious sect-based political system,” said Randa Slim, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

In this Sunday, April 29, 2018 file photo, a luna park wheel decorated by posters that show portraits of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his son the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is a candidate for the parliamentary elections which will be held on May 6, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Still, the biggest winner appears to be Hezbollah and its allies, who look set to scoop up at least some of the seats lost by Hariri’s coalition, largely because of the expected fragmentation of the Sunni vote.

Hariri now has the largest block in parliament, but is likely to lose seats to rival politicians. Some of Hariri’s supporters shifted their allegiance after the billionaire businessman, who also holds Saudi citizenship, laid off scores of employees in his development company, Saudi Oger, as well as in Hariri-owned charities and media outlets in Lebanon, largely because of Saudi spending cuts.

That loss of support has been compounded by what some see as a weak stance vis-a-vis Hezbollah, accusing him of catering to and giving political cover to the militant group, which a U.N.-backed tribunal has accused in the 2015 assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah offered its support to Hariri after he was detained in Saudi Arabia late last year during a visit to Riyadh in which he announced his resignation as prime minister, citing Iran and Hezbollah’s meddling in the region. The move was widely seen as Saudi coercion, although Hariri denies stepping down against his will and has since reversed his resignation.

Hezbollah now seeks, along with its allies, to win at least 43 seats in the 128-member legislature, which would enable the militant group to veto any laws it opposes.

Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad, and has cleared the vast region along the countries’ shared border of Islamic militants, leaving hundreds of its fighters killed and wounded. It is now campaigning heavily on those achievements.

Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, called for a heavy voter turnout, particularly in the Baalbek-Hermel region in eastern Lebanon, traditionally a Hezbollah stronghold which now faces a challenge from rivals.

“You should protect with your votes your victories and achievements, for which you’ve paid a very high price,” Nasrallah said in an appeal to supporters at an election rally in the area on Monday.

Despite limited pushback from the Shiite community, Hezbollah has largely delivered on its promises in Syria as far as the Shiite community is concerned and will now be expected to deliver on the economic front, Slim said.

She expects a governing coalition between Hariri and Hezbollah to re-emerge from Sunday’s vote and says if the elections produce a weaker Hariri, it will be all the more reason for Hezbollah to push for him to be the next prime minister.

“In light of the talk of a looming Iranian-Israeli confrontation in Syria, Hezbollah will be more incentivized in not rocking the boat in Lebanon,” she said.

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