World

Japanese billionaire seeking eight people to join him on SpaceX mission to the moon

plefevre/iStockBy CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- A Japanese billionaire is searching for eight members of the public to join him on a mission to orbit around the moon.

Yusaku Maezawa, who made headlines in 2018 when he was unveiled as SpaceX's first private passenger to commission a trip around the moon, released a new video Tuesday to share updates on his pending mission.

"I’m inviting you to join me on this mission, eight of you from all around the world," Maezawa said in the video.

He said the mission is now scheduled to take place in 2023 on a Starship spacecraft that is currently being developed by Elon Musk's private space-faring firm SpaceX.

"I will pay for the entire journey," Maezawa said. "Ten to 12 of us will be on board, and I hope that together we can make it a fun trip."

Maezawa initially said his plan was to bring artists from around the world into space with him, but said Tuesday that this plan has "evolved."

"I began to wonder ... what do I mean by artists?" he said. "The more I though about it, the more ambiguous it became."

"I began to think that maybe every single person who is doing something creative could be called an artist," he added.

Now, Maezawa said the mission is open to anyone who has the goal of going into space "to help other people and greater society in some way."

In addition, Maezawa said the crew members must be "willing and able to support other crew members who share similar aspirations."

"If that sounds like you, please join me," he said.

Musk also shared a message in the video, saying that the mission is significant because "it will be the first private spaceflight, first commercial spaceflight with humans beyond Earth orbit."

He went on, "This has never occurred before and we’re going to go past the moon, so it will actually end up being further. This mission, we expect people will go further than any human has ever gone from planet Earth. Maezawa is also providing places on the ship for artists and others to join, so he wants this to be something that is exciting and inspiring for the whole world."

Finally, Musk said he is "highly confident" that the Starship spacecraft will have reached orbit "many times" before 2023, and "that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023."

Those who want to join the mission can pre-register for the application process on the dearMoon mission’s website. Pre-registration must be submitted by March 14. Then there is a screening, assignment and interview process -- though further details for how the crew will be selected were not disclosed.

The final interview round and medical checkup for the crew is expected to happen in late May 2021.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Duchess Meghan faces report of bullying claims ahead of highly anticipated Oprah interview

ABC News/Frame Grab via Getty ImagesBy ANGELINE JANE BERNABE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Just days ahead of their highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are firing back at a report in a U.K. newspaper that claims Meghan bullied royal staffers at Kensington palace before she and Prince Harry decided to step down from their royal roles last year.

"Let's just call this what it is -- a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful misinformation," a Sussex spokesperson told ABC News in a statement.

On Tuesday, Meghan came under fire after a story published in The Times of London reported that she faced a bullying complaint from a close adviser at Kensington Palace.

The Times reported that the complaint was made in October 2018 by Jason Knauf, the Sussexes' communications secretary at the time, in a move that was intended to protect staffers after they allegedly became pressured by Meghan.

According to the Times of London report, the complaint claimed that she "drove two personal assistants out of the household and was undermining the confidence of a third staff member."

In several alleged incidents taking place after Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding, un-named sources told the newspaper that staff members "would on occasion be reduced to tears." One aide allegedly told a colleague, "I can't stop shaking," while in anticipation of a confrontation with Meghan, according to the report.

According to the Times report, two un-named senior staff members also claimed that they were allegedly bullied by the duchess and another aide claimed it felt "more like emotional cruelty and manipulation."

In response to the allegations reported in the paper, a spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex told ABC News that they've "addressed these defamatory claims in full" in a "detailed letter" to the Times. The spokesperson also said Meghan is "saddened" by the news.

"We are disappointed to see this defamatory portrayal of The Duchess of Sussex given credibility by a media outlet," a Sussex spokesperson wrote in a statement. "It's no coincidence that distorted several-year-old accusations aimed at undermining The Duchess are being briefed to the British media shortly before she and The Duke are due to speak openly and honestly about their experience of recent years."

"The Duchess is saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma," the spokesperson added. "She is determined to continue her work building compassion around the world and will keep striving to set an example for doing what is right and doing what is good."

Harry and Meghan's interview with Winfrey is slated to air March 7 as a two-hour prime-time special.

In clips released earlier this week by CBS, the couple opens up to Winfrey about royal life before stepping down last year.

In one of the clips, Winfrey says there was "no subject that was off limits" and asks Meghan if she was "silent or silenced."

Meghan remains silent as Winfrey interjects, "Almost unsurvivable -- sounds like there was a breaking point."

Harry shared a similar sentiment in an interview that aired last week with The Late Late Show host James Corden, saying he and Meghan left a "toxic" media environment in the U.K.

"There was a really difficult environment, as I think a lot of people saw. We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health," said Harry, who has recently waged legal battles with some British tabloids. "I was like, 'This is toxic,' so I did what any husband and any father would do, which is like, I need to get my family out of here."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prison where Alexey Navalny was sent is 'unbearable,' lawyer, former inmates say

macky_ch/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny has been sent to a prison known as unusually harsh and feared as place where prisoners are subjected to intense psychological pressure, according to former inmates and prisoner rights campaigners.

Last month, Navalny was sentenced to serve over two and a half years in a penal colony for allegedly violating his parole for a 2014 fraud conviction that has been widely denounced internationally as politically motivated. He was arrested after he returned to Russia following his near fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.

Navalny was moved last week from a Moscow detention center to a prison colony, and officially, authorities have still not said where he is. However, Russian state media reported Monday that Navalny is now in a prison in the Vladimirskaya region, about 60 miles east of Moscow.

The United States and the European Union on Tuesday imposed new sanctions against several senior Russian officials, including the head of Russia's prison service and its prosecutor general, over Navalny’s poisoning and jailing. The Biden administration also said it was limiting some forms of cooperation with Russia's space industry.

The prison where Navalny has been sent, Penal Colony No. 2 in the village of Pokrov, is “a breaking camp,” Pyotr Kuryanov, a lawyer with the NGO Fund for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, told ABC News.

Former inmates at the prison said that while they do not expect Navalny would face beatings or physical torture at the prison, because he is a high-profile prisoner, they believe he will be subjected to pressure and isolation that would amount to “psychological torture."

“No one will beat or torture him,” said Vladimir Pereverzin, who spent two years in the prison 10 years ago. “But they will psychologically break him.”

Pereverzin was a former manager at the oil company Yukos, which was owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who was jailed for more than a decade on fraud charges that most observers believe were retribution for trying to politically challenge President Vladimir Putin. Pereverzin was sentenced to seven years on embezzlement charges, as part of the case against Yukos and Khodorkovsky.

Russia’s penal colonies, though improved, are still set up along the lines of Gulag camps created in the 1930s. The prison consists of barracks that house several dozen inmates sleeping in rows of bunks together, and it is surrounded by high walls topped with razor-wire.

Prisoners work long labor shifts, often sewing clothes, and conditions are reportedly grim. But Penal Colony No. 2, former inmates and campaigners said, is distinguished by the exhausting level of control and discipline to which inmates are reportedly subjected.

From outside “it seems like all the rest of the camps,” Kuryanov said. “But inside this camp, there is an unbearable atmosphere created artificially by the administration staff, so that it has to be lived in day after day, month after month, year after year.”

In practice, former inmates alleged, that means inmates are subjected to near constant checks and forced to continually follow trivial rules invented by the administration, leaving them in continual fear of punishment. Infractions can include a missing button or failing to say hello.

Ordinary new inmates reportedly go through a grim induction, beaten by guards and inmates working for the administration, according to several accounts by former inmates published online. Almost every moment of a prisoner's time is accounted for, and guards allegedly often make them take part in repetitive pointless exercises intended to break them them down, such as being made to repeat their names and crimes over and over or being forced to stand for hours with their heads lowered, Dmitry Dyomushkin, a nationalist activist who spent time in the camp, told Russian media.

“There, even flies don’t fly without asking,” Dyomushkin told radio station Echo of Moscow.

In the penal colonies, discipline is usually maintained by prisoners themselves, either by inmates collaborating with the guards or by criminal gang leaders. Colonies that are run by prisoners working with the authorities are known as “Red Zones” in Russian criminal slang.

At Penal Colony. No. 2, there is a strong set-up between the administration and collaborating prisoners, those with experience there alleged, that allows the warden to dominate a prisoner entirely.

“It’s the reddest of the red,” Maria Eismont, a lawyer for an activist who was sentenced there in 2019, told Open Media, an opposition news site. “There, everything is done to isolate political prisoners,” she said, alleging that other inmates were forbidden from talking to her client.

Dyomoshkin said he faced similar tactics, spending months without speaking to anyone, despite being kept in the crowded barracks.

Guards would also often reportedly make life unbearable for inmates by turning other prisoners against them. Guards would tell some inmates that other inmates were responsible for collective privileges being taken away, former inmates said.

Pereverzin said that while he was in prison, the pressure became so bad, he used a razor to cut gashes on his stomach to force guards to move him to a different barracks.

"There's nothing good there," Pereverzin said. "You completely feel your helplessness."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Judge blocks UK tabloid's appeal after Duchess Meghan wins privacy lawsuit

Marilyn Nieves/iStockBy ZOE MAGEE and KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

A U.K. judge on Tuesday denied a request by the publisher of the Mail on Sunday to appeal his ruling that the tabloid invaded the privacy of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, by publishing portions of a letter she wrote to her father.

The judge, High Court Justice Mark Warby, did acknowledge though that Associated Newspapers' Ltd., the publisher of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, could still attempt an appeal in the Court of Appeal, according to the U.K. Press Association (PA) reporter in court.

Warby ruled last month that the Mail on Sunday invaded Meghan's privacy by publishing large parts of the personal letter she sent to her now-estranged father Thomas Markle before her 2018 wedding to Prince Harry.

The judge also ordered Associated Newspapers' Ltd. on Tuesday to make an "interim payment" of nearly $630,000 of Meghan's legal costs within two weeks. Meghan's legal team claimed in court that her legal costs for the lawsuit, which she filed in fall of 2019, have exceeded $2 million, according to the PA reporter in court.

Another hearing will be held in late April or early May to consider possible further "financial remedies" and to consider Meghan's claim under the Data Protection Act.

Meghan's lawyers also sought an order requiring Associated Newspapers' Ltd. to publish a statement about the duchess' legal victory on the front page of The Mail On Sunday and the homepage of MailOnline "to act as a deterrent to future infringers," according to court documents.

Meghan's 2018 handwritten letter to her father, which addressed the breakdown in their relationship, was reproduced by Associated Newspapers in five articles in February 2019.

Meghan sued Associated Newspapers for alleged copyright infringement, misuse of private information and breach of the Data Protection Act.

Meghan, who now lives in California with Harry and their son Archie, did not issue a statement after today's ruling. The duchess, who is expecting her second child, said after the court's ruling last month that she hopes her case "creates legal precedent."

“After two long years of pursuing litigation, I am grateful to the courts for holding Associated Newspapers and The Mail on Sunday to account for their illegal and dehumanizing practices. These tactics (and those of their sister publications MailOnline and the Daily Mail) are not new; in fact, they’ve been going on for far too long without consequence. For these outlets, it’s a game. For me and so many others, it’s real life, real relationships, and very real sadness. The damage they have done and continue to do runs deep," Meghan said in her statement. “The world needs reliable, fact-checked, high-quality news. What The Mail on Sunday and its partner publications do is the opposite."

"We all lose when misinformation sells more than truth, when moral exploitation sells more than decency, and when companies create their business model to profit from people’s pain," she said. "But for today, with this comprehensive win on both privacy and copyright, we have all won. We now know, and hope it creates legal precedent, that you cannot take somebody’s privacy and exploit it in a privacy case, as the defendant has blatantly done over the past two years."

“I share this victory with each of you—because we all deserve justice and truth, and we all deserve better," Meghan concluded her statement. "I particularly want to thank my husband, mom, and legal team, and especially Jenny Afia for her unrelenting support throughout this process.”

Here is what to know about Meghan's nearly two-year legal battle with Associated Newspapers' Ltd.

Why is the Duchess of Sussex suing Associated Newspapers?


Meghan sued Associated Newspapers, the parent company of The Mail on Sunday and MailOnline, over five articles published in February 2019 that included excerpts from a private letter she sent to her now-estranged father, Thomas Markle. The duchess is seeking damages from the newspaper for alleged misuse of private information, copyright infringement and breach of the Data Protection Act.

The letter, which is the focal point of the court case, describes the break down in relations between father and daughter.

In the run-up to the 2018 royal wedding Thomas Markle had been the subject of immense tabloid interest, which reached a pinnacle when the Daily Mail revealed just days before the wedding that, in an attempt to revamp his image, Thomas Markle had staged paparazzi photos of himself preparing for his daughter's big day.

Thomas Markle was then hospitalized and had to undergo surgery, which prevented him from traveling to his daughter's wedding.

Relations between the two became strained and Thomas Markle gave several interviews to the media, which we now know greatly upset his daughter. The letter lays out Meghan's take on these events.

According to the duchess' legal team, the Mail on Sunday breached copyright by publishing the private letter as it legally belongs to the duchess, the author of the letter.

Her lawyers also argue that the Mail on Sunday breached privacy and data protection laws and that they cherry-picked portions of the letter to manipulate readers.

The letter was published by the Mail on Sunday in February 2019. In it, the duchess describes her sadness at the deterioration of her relationship with her father, asks why he spoke to the media and said he has broken her heart "into a million pieces."

Thomas Markle claims he agreed to the letter being published to set the record straight after a friend of the duchess mentioned the letter in an interview with People magazine.

Five friends, described as "an essential part of Meghan's inner circle," spoke anonymously to People, according to the magazine, saying they wanted to "stand up against the global bullying we are seeing and speak the truth about our friend."

They added, "Meg has silently sat back and endured the lies and untruths ... It's wrong to put anyone under this level of emotional trauma, let alone when they're pregnant."

One of these five friends referenced the letter Meghan had written to her father, saying, "After the wedding she wrote him a letter. She's like, 'Dad, I'm so heartbroken. I love you. I have one father. Please stop victimizing me through the media so we can repair our relationship.'"

Thomas Markle in turn said he felt compelled to publish the letter to defend his reputation -- asserting it was not the conciliatory missive described by this friend in People.

The upcoming trial must determine whether the Mail on Sunday infringed Duchess Meghan's rights when it published the letter.

Prince Harry announces lawsuit blasting 'disturbing pattern' by British tabloid media


Prince Harry announced the lawsuit in a statement criticizing the media during his tour of southern Africa in October 2019.

He wrote, "My wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences -- a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son."

"This particular legal action hinges on one incident in a long and disturbing pattern of behavior by British tabloid media," he added. "The contents of a private letter were published unlawfully in an intentionally destructive manner to manipulate you, the reader, and further the divisive agenda of the media group in question. In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year."

I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces

"My deepest fear is history repeating itself. I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person," wrote Harry, whose mother, Princess Diana, died in a paparazzi-involved car crash in 1997. "I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

After the statement was released to the public, his law firm, Schillings, laid out their case.

"We have initiated legal proceedings against the Mail on Sunday, and its parent company Associated Newspapers, over the intrusive and unlawful publication of a private letter written by the Duchess of Sussex, which is part of a campaign by this media group to publish false and deliberately derogatory stories about her, as well as her husband," the law firm wrote. "Given the refusal of Associated Newspapers to resolve this issue satisfactorily, we have issued proceedings to redress this breach of privacy, infringement of copyright and the aforementioned media agenda."

What has happened so far?


There have now been five pretrial hearings.

The first hearing, known as a strike-out hearing, was held in April to determine which of the duchess's claims could proceed to a trial against Associated Newspapers. In this hearing, lawyers for the Mail on Sunday successfully argued that certain parts of the duchess' claims should be removed.

Warby -- the judge who is presiding over the case -- agreed to take out complaints that the paper acted dishonestly, deliberately stirred up conflict between the duchess and her father, and pursued an agenda of publishing offensive or intrusive articles about the duchess.

"I do not consider the allegations in question go to the 'heart' of the case, which at its core concerns the publication of five articles disclosing the words of, and information drawn from, the letter written by the claimant to her father in August in 2018."

These five articles were published in the Mail on Sunday in February 2019 and reproduced parts of her handwritten letter she sent to her father.

Having lost on those claims, the duchess agreed to pay Associated Newspapers' legal fees of approximately $87,000.

Meghan wins right to protect identity of her friends


The second hearing was on July 29 and in it the duchess' legal team called for Warby to legally block Associated Newspapers from publishing the identity of the five friends who gave interviews to People magazine. Their names were revealed to the newspaper in a confidential court document attached to the first hearing and Meghan was worried the identity of her friends would be made public.

In a witness statement sent to the court before the hearing, the duchess argued, "Associated Newspapers, the owner of The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, is threatening to publish the names of five women -- five private citizens -- who made a choice on their own to speak anonymously with a U.S. media outlet more than a year ago, to defend me from the bullying behavior of Britain's tabloid media.

"These five women are not on trial, and nor am I. The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case --that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter."

Her lawyers argued that the friends have a double right to anonymity, firstly as confidential journalistic sources and secondly under their own privacy rights.

Lawyers for Associated Newspapers argued that the identities should be made public, calling them "important potential witnesses on a key issue."

"Reporting these matters without referring to names would be a heavy curtailment of the media's and the defendant's entitlement to report this case and the public's right to know about it," said Antony White, the lawyer representing the paper. "No friend's oral evidence could be fully and properly reported because full reporting might identify her, especially as there has already been media speculation as to their identities."

Warby said in his ruling, "I have concluded that, for the time being at least, the court should grant the claimant the order that she seeks," protecting the anonymity of friends who defended Meghan in the pages of a U.S. magazine."

Warby also added though that concerns about confidentiality "may fade or even evaporate if and when there is a trial at which one or more of the sources gives evidence."

Meghan's legal team is treating the five women as potential witnesses, so they may be named at trial.

Associated Newspapers declined to comment on the judge's ruling.

Court battle over behind-the-scenes book


In the third hearing, held on Sept. 21, Associated Newspapers argued that they should be allowed to include "Finding Freedom" to support their argument that Meghan did not expect the contents of the letter to her father to remain private, even suggesting that she had mentioned it to the Kensington Palace communications team as part of a potential media strategy.

They also argued that Meghan was trying to manipulate the narrative around her to be more positive, and that she gave or enabled "them [the authors of Finding Freedom, Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand] to be given a great deal of other information about her personal life, in order to set out her own version of events in a way that is favourable to her."

Meghan's lawyers categorically refute these claims, maintaining that neither the duke nor the duchess collaborated with the authors of the book.

Judge Francesca Kaye ruled in the High Court on Sept. 29th that Associated Newspapers could amend their argument against the duchess and include as evidence "Finding Freedom," a book about her and Prince Harry's departure from official royal duties co-authored by Carolyn Durand and Omid Scobie.

Durand is a former producer at ABC News, and Scobie is currently an ABC News royal contributor.

Responding to the ruling, the duchess's legal team issued a strongly worded statement saying they have "no doubt" the newspaper's new defense "will fail."

"We were prepared for this potential outcome given the low threshold to amend a pleading for a privacy and copyright case," the legal team said in the statement, adding that the publishers are using the court case to "exploit The duchess's privacy and the privacy of those around her for profit-motivated clickbait rather than journalism."

"As a reminder, it is The Mail on Sunday and Associated Newspapers who acted unlawfully and are the ones on trial, not The Duchess of Sussex, although they would like their readers to believe otherwise," they concluded in the statement.

Associated Newspapers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meghan's bid to avoid going to trial


In the fourth hearing, held on Oct. 29th, Warby agreed to Meghan's lawyers' request to postpone the trial.

Meghan's lawyers also laid out in the fourth hearing their application for a Summary Judgement, which is what Warby ruled on in his most recent decision.

In a new tactic for her legal team, Meghan’s lawyers argued that Associated Newspapers’ defense is so weak the case should not even go to trial.

Meghan wins on invasion of privacy


In a judgment released on Feb. 11, the judge ruled that the Mail on Sunday invaded Meghan's privacy by publishing large parts of the personal letter she sent to her father.

Representatives for the Mail on Sunday said in a statement at the time that they were considering appealing the decision.

"We are very surprised by today’s summary judgment and disappointed at being denied the chance to have all the evidence heard and tested in open court at a full trial," the statement read. "We are carefully considering the judgment’s contents and will decide in due course whether to lodge an appeal."

Judge denies bid to appeal

Judge Warby blocked an appeal on March 2 by the publisher of the Mail on Sunday to overturn a court ruling that the tabloid invaded the privacy of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, by publishing portions of the letter she wrote to her father.

The judge also ordered Associated Newspapers' Ltd. on Tuesday to make an "interim payment" of nearly $630,000 of Meghan's legal costs within two weeks, according to the PA reporter in court.

What's next


Another hearing will be held in late April or early May to consider "financial remedies" that could be granted to Meghan and to consider Meghan's claim under the Data Protection Act.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Americans accused of helping Carlos Ghosn escape arrive in Japan after extradition

Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBy CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News

(TOKYO) -- After a nine-month battle fighting extradition, the American father and son duo accused of aiding former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn in his dramatic international escape have arrived in Japan.

Former Green Beret Michael Taylor and his adult son, Peter Taylor, arrived in Tokyo Tuesday morning, their lawyer Paul V. Kelly confirmed to ABC News.

"It is very disappointing that the U.S. has treated a distinguished veteran and his son in this manner," Kelly told ABC News. "This extradition should never have occurred. The hope now is that Japan acts in a reasonable and lawful manner, and that the Taylors are returned home to their family as soon as possible."

The father and son from Massachusetts face criminal charges in Japan, where they are accused of helping smuggle Ghosn out of the country in a box used for audio equipment while Ghosn was awaiting trial for financial crimes. Ghosn's dramatic escape from Japan to Lebanon via private jet made international headlines last year.

In late December 2019, according to court records, Michael Taylor arrived at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, where his son had earlier checked into a room, with "large black audio equipment-style cases." Ghosn had separately arrived at the Grand Hyatt at about the same time.

Michael Taylor eventually loaded his luggage onto a private jet which departed for Turkey. On Dec. 31, 2019, Ghosn announced he was in Lebanon.

Court records indicate that the Taylors received more than $1.3 million from Ghosn and his family members.

"The Taylors’ alleged plot to smuggle Ghosn out of Japan was one of the most brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history, involving a dizzying array of luxury hotel meetups, fake personas, bullet train travel, and the chartering of a private jet," Assistant US Attorney Stephen Hassink said last year.

The former Nissan chairman has denied wrongdoing and said he fled to escape "political persecution," though he faces a litany of financial misconduct charges in Japan. Ghosn currently remains in Lebanon, which does not have an extradition agreement with Japan for its citizens.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls freed days after being kidnapped, official says

Adam Smigielski/iStockBy MORGAN WINSOR and JAMES BWALA, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Hundreds of students who were abducted from an all-girls boarding school in northwestern Nigeria last week have been released, authorities said Tuesday.

Gunmen kidnapped 317 students from the Government Girls Junior Secondary School (GGSS) in the rural town of Jangebe in Zamfara state before dawn on Friday, according to a statement from Mohammed Shehu, spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force's Zamfara State Police Command. The incident -- the latest in a recent string of mass abductions of students in the West African nation -- caused international outrage, with the United States condemning the attack.

Zamfara state police and the Nigerian military have conducted joint operations to rescue the schoolgirls.

The governor of Zamfara state, Bello Matawalle, announced early Tuesday that 279 schoolgirls have been freed. The terms of their release were not immediately known. It's also unclear whether others remain in captivity, as the discrepancy in the numbers was not explained.

"It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe from captivity," Matawalle said in a statement posted on Twitter, along with photos of some of the girls. "This follows the scaling of several hurdles laid against our efforts. I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe."

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took to Twitter to express his "overwhelming joy" over the release of the schoolgirls.

"I join the affected families and the people of Zamfara State in welcoming and celebrating the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe," Buhari tweeted. "This news bring overwhelming joy. I am pleased that their ordeal has come to a happy end without any incident."

"We are working hard to bring an end to these grim and heartbreaking incidents of kidnapping," he added. "The Military and the Police will continue to go after kidnappers. They need the support of local communities in terms of human intelligence that can help nip criminal plans in the bud."

Last week, in the wake of the abduction, Buhari warned that policies of paying ransoms to bandits have "the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences."

"We will not succumb to blackmail by bandits and criminals who target innocent school students in the expectation of huge ransom payments," he tweeted Friday.

Schools in rural Nigeria have been targeted in attacks and kidnappings in recent years. On Saturday, 27 students, five staff members and nine family members of the staff were freed more than a week after being taken from an all-boys boarding school in the west-central town of Kagara in Niger state. In December, 344 students were released about a week after being kidnapped from another boys' boarding school in the northwestern town of Kankara in Katsina state. The Nigerian government has said no ransom was paid for their release and, in both cases, authorities blamed the attacks on armed groups, locally called bandits, who are known to abduct students for money in many Nigerian states.

One of the most well-known kidnappings was in April 2014, when members of the jihadist group Boko Haram snatched 276 students from their dormitory at an all-girls boarding school in the northeastern town of Chibok in Borno state. Some of the girls managed to escape on their own, while others were later rescued or freed following negotiations. But the fate of dozens remains unknown.

Boko Haram, whose name in the local Hausa language roughly translates to "Western education is forbidden," has waged an Islamist insurgency in northeastern Nigeria since 2009 and has been targeting schools for a number of years, with the Chibok attack being the most notorious and widely publicized. The group's uprising was fueled largely through the its systematic campaign of abducting children and forcing thousands of girls and boys into their ranks, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). A faction of Boko Haram has been aligned with ISIS since 2015.

In a statement Saturday reacting to the news that the Kankara students were freed, UNICEF Nigeria representative Peter Hawkins lamented that children are victims of attacks on their schools "far too often in Nigeria."

"Such attacks not only negate the right of children to an education, they also make children fearful of going to school, and parents afraid to send their children to school," Hawkins said. "Schools must be safe places to study and develop, and learning should not become a perilous endeavour.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Ex-Saudi spymaster's assassination plot accusation complicates Riyadh relations following Khashoggi report: Experts

JeanUrsula/iStockBy LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- A lawsuit accusing the Saudi crown prince of overseeing an assassination attempt on a former Saudi spymaster similar to the one that sealed the gruesome fate of Jamal Khashoggi may hamper efforts to mend the already fraught U.S.-Saudi relationship, experts say.

The lawsuit, which was filed last summer against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by former Saudi intelligence official Saad Aljabri, claims that Aljabri was the target of a failed assassination attempt akin to the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist whose death sparked global backlash and complicated ties between Riyadh and Washington.

On Friday, the Biden administration released an intelligence report determining that MBS, as the crown prince is colloquially known, "approved" the plot to murder Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul -- a notable step toward holding the kingdom to account for the extrajudicial killing on foreign soil. The release of the report was immediately followed by a set of travel visa restrictions for Saudi government officials and sanctions against a key aide to MBS.

In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it "completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom's leadership," claiming that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.

Aljabri, 62, has been locked in a heated and complex legal dispute with Saudi leadership since last August. His accusations contained in the lawsuit against MBS are lurid and specific -- and bear an eerie resemblance to the circumstances that led to Khashoggi's death, including the allegation that MBS authorized it. Most notably, Aljabri claims MBS sent a "hit squad" to murder him in Canada, where he has been in exile since fleeing the Saudi kingdom in 2017.

The alleged threats against Aljabri demonstrate "that Jamal Khashoggi was not a one-off," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News.

"It's part of a pattern of really horrific human rights abuses, up to and including murder, conducted by the crown prince against people he, for one reason or another, sees as political enemies or political threats," Riedel said.

Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran with expertise in the Middle East, said the threats facing Aljabri present President Joe Biden's administration an opportunity "to demonstrate its credibility as being an advocate for democratic institutions and human rights."

"We can't sit idly by and watch a country that we're pretending to be allies with go ahead and execute people abroad like this," said London, who is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.

A veteran Saudi intelligence official, Aljabri once served as a key deputy to Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, a member of the Saudi royal family and former head of the government's powerful interior ministry. MBN was detained last year as part of bin Salman's efforts to consolidate power in Riyadh.

London, who said he worked closely with Aljabri during the Obama administration on a range of strategic initiatives in the region, described Aljabri as "an excellent partner … very thoughtful, very patient, very considerate." Aljabri was MBN's "right-hand man," London said, with a portfolio of high-profile counterterrorism responsibilities, including acting as a liaison to U.S. intelligence.

Generations of U.S. spymasters considered MBN and Aljabri "crucial partners" in the fight against al Qaeda, Riedel said. In 2010, for example, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, bin Nayef and Aljabri helped American officials thwart a terrorist plot to bomb two airplanes over American cities.

"Mohammed bin Nayef and Aljabri provided us with the flight details of those aircrafts. You don't get better intelligence than that," Riedel told ABC News. "So, the two of them are not only heroes in their own country, they are people that we owe because they helped to save American lives."

In 2017, however, MBS ascended to the role of crown prince and took control of the kingdom's vast security and intelligence apparatus. Aljabri fell out of favor and, sensing a change in the government power structure, left Riyadh for Canada, where he remains in exile.

In Aljabri's lawsuit against MBS, which was filed in the U.S. last August, his lawyers wrote that MBS has "personally orchestrated an attempted extrajudicial killing of [Aljabri], an attempt that remains ongoing to this day."

The lawsuit includes several details about the alleged attempt on his life -- including the rationale, strategy and timing -- which appear to bear a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi's death.

Like Khashoggi, Aljabri claims to have "sensitive information" that could potentially expose "bin Salman's covert political scheming within the Royal Court, [and] corrupt business dealings," the lawsuit reads.

"That is why defendant bin Salman wants him dead -- and why defendant bin Salman has worked to achieve that objective over the last three years," claims the suit.

In the complaint, Aljabri alleges that MBS "dispatched a private hit squad to North America to kill [him]" less than two weeks after the assassination of Khashoggi in Istanbul, but that the team was turned away at a Canadian airport.

"Like the team that murdered Khashoggi, those sent to kill [Aljabri] … were also members of defendant bin Salman's personal mercenary group, the Tiger Squad," his lawsuit claims.

In February, Aljabri claimed in court documents that Saudi officials "repeatedly pressured" one of his daughters "to travel to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey" in September 2018, and that "only days later, the Tiger Squad successfully executed Jamal Khashoggi inside the same facility."

Two of Aljabri's other children have been detained in Saudi Arabia, Aljabri claimed.

The Saudis have denied the accusations leveled in Aljabri's U.S. lawsuit and recently filed a motion to dismiss the case. Meanwhile, in Canadian civil court, a coalition of Saudi government-controlled entities accused Aljabri in January of siphoning billions of dollars for himself and his family before fleeing to Toronto -- a claim Aljabri denies.

An Ontario-based judge has agreed to temporarily freeze Aljabri's assets. But as Riedel notes, the Canadian litigation may be more significant for what it reveals about the Saudis than its effect on Aljabri's pocketbook.

"What it shows to me is that [MBS] is nowhere near as firmly in control as he likes to portray," Riedel said.

Furthermore, the disclosures in court documents may serve to divulge sensitive information about the machinations of the Saudi elite -- and could further incriminate MBS and his circle of advisers.

According to records filed by Saudi companies as part of the Canadian case, for example, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund took control of a private aviation firm called Sky Prime Aviation Services in 2017, a year before Khashoggi's death.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two jets used to transport operatives who allegedly carried out the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul belonged to Sky Prime, citing Turkish officials. The Canadian court documents were first reported by CNN.

Without a strong response from the U.S., bin Salman and his allies are unlikely to halt extrajudicial retaliation against dissidents like Khashoggi and Aljabri, Riedel said. But the stakes may be even higher than that.

"Saudi Arabia has been an incredibly stable country for more than 100 years, but it's not so stable anymore -- and the Biden administration ought to be thinking about that," Riedel said. "MBS is not just a threat to Khashoggi and Aljabri; he is a threat to the very survival and viability of the Saudi state. If he's now left in the line of succession and becomes king, we may find a Saudi Arabia that is very unstable and could become prey to very abrupt and unpredictable political change."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Myanmar's ousted leader appears in court after deadliest day since coup

SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty ImagesBy KARSON YIU and MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News

(HONG KONG and LONDON) -- Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was seen Monday for the first time since she was detained in a military coup one month ago, appearing in a Naypyitaw court via videoconference.

The Nobel laureate, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was initially charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios. She was later charged with violating a natural disaster law by breaching COVID-19 protocols while campaigning during last year's elections.

Suu Kyi, 75, appeared in court after a weekend of the deadliest violence that the Southeast Asian country has seen since the army seized power on Feb. 1. Police and security forces confronted peaceful demonstrations in several locations across Myanmar on Sunday and fired live rounds into the crowds, killing at least 18 people and wounding over 30 others, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which cited "credible information" that it had received. Tear gas and stun grenades were also reportedly used in various locations.

More than 1,000 people, some of whom remain unaccounted for, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained in Myanmar over the past month, mostly without any form of due process. On Sunday alone, at least 85 medical professionals and students as well as seven journalists who were present at the demonstrations were detained, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office.

"We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protestors," Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office, said in a statement Sunday. "The people of Myanmar have the right to assemble peacefully and demand the restoration of democracy. These fundamental rights must be respected by the military and police, not met with violent and bloody repression. Use of lethal force against non-violent demonstrators is never justifiable under international human rights norms."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took to Twitter on Sunday night to condemn the "abhorrent violence against the people of Burma," using Myanmar's former name under British colonial rule. Blinken said the U.S. government "will continue to promote accountability for those responsible" and "stand[s] firmly with the courageous people of Burma."

Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since she was arrested along with other leaders of her NLD party on Feb. 1, signalling an end to Myanmar's already fragile experiment with democracy.

Suu Kyi, who is still revered in Myanmar despite losing some of her international luster for her refusal to condemn the army’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority, is understood to have had a tentative shared power agreement with the military since she was named state counsellor in 2016, offering the government a veneer of democratic legitimacy as they embarked on a decade of reforms. The role of state counsellor, akin to a prime minister or a head of government, was created because Myanmar's 2008 constitution barred Suu Kyi from becoming president, since her late husband and children are foreign citizens.

The Nov. 8 general election was meant to be a referendum on Suu Kyi’s popular civilian government but her party expanded their seats in Parliament, securing a clear majority and threatening the military's tight hold on power. The constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries.

The new civilian-led government was supposed to convene for the first time on Feb. 1 but power was instead handed over to Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, who is already under U.S. sanctions for his role in the human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. An order signed by the acting president granted full authority to Hlaing to run the country and declared a state of emergency that will last for at least one year, citing widespread voter fraud in the November election. Hlaing’s office said in a statement that the military would hold a "free and fair general election" after the state of emergency ends. Voter rolls will be checked and the country's election commission, which last week rejected the military's allegations of voter fraud, will be "re-established," according to the statement.

The military previously ruled Myanmar for nearly five decades before appearing to slowly transition to democratic rule a decade ago and holding its first general elections in years in 2015, which was also a landslide victory for the NLD. Suu Kyi had spent 15 years under house arrest while leading the struggle for democracy against the Burmese military junta and was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her "nonviolent" efforts.

Since the Feb. 1 takeover, a movement of protests across Myanmar has been growing -- and the junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council, has become more and more violent in its response. The initial restraint shown by authorities in the immediate aftermath of the bloodless coup has given way to an increased use of lethal force as weeks of internet shutdowns, threats and mass arrests have not deterred thousands of people from voicing their opposition.

During Suu Kyi's virtual court appearance in the capital on Monday, police and protesters faced off again some 200 miles south in Yangon, the country's largest city, with videos posted on social media showing clouds of tear gas as protesters clad with construction helmets ran for cover.

Suu Kyi is believed to be under house arrest at her residence in Naypyidaw. If she is found guilty of any of the charges launched against her, the resulting prison sentence will likely overlap with the election the junta has promised would take a place in a year.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Harry tells Oprah Winfrey he was afraid of 'history repeating itself'

ABCBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The world got its first look over the weekend at Prince Harry's and Meghan's sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey, which is being billed as a bombshell interview in which Harry and Meghan give more insights as to why they stepped down from their royal roles.

“You’ve said some pretty shocking things here," Winfrey says to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in a pair of clips released Sunday by CBS.

In one of the clips, Winfrey says there was "no subject that was off limits" and asks Meghan if she was “silent or silenced."

Meghan remains silent as Winfrey interjects, "Almost survivable -- sounds like there was a breaking point."

The interview, which will air March 7 as a two-hour primetime special, is Harry's and Meghan's first joint interview about their decision to transition out of their working roles in the royal family. The couple, who now live near Winfrey in California, completed their last official royal engagement nearly one year ago.

Buckingham Palace confirmed last month that Harry and Meghan will not return as working members of the royal family.

In the interview with Winfrey, Harry -- whose mother, Princess Diana, died in 1997 after being injured in a Paris car crash while being pursued by paparazzi -- said his "biggest concern was history repeating itself."

"For me, I'm just really relieved and happy to be sitting here, talking to you with my wife by my side," he said.

As an image of a young Prince Harry with his late mother is shown, the prince is heard saying, "Because I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for her going through this process by herself all those years ago because it has been unbelievably tough for the two of us but at least we had each other."

Princess Diana and Harry's father, Prince Charles, separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, one year before Diana died.

Harry shared a similar sentiment in an interview with The Late Late Show host James Corden that aired last week, saying he and Meghan left a "toxic" media environment in the U.K.

"There was a really difficult environment, as I think a lot of people saw. We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health," said Harry, who has recently waged legal battles with some British tabloids. "I was like, 'This is toxic,' so I did what any husband and any father would do, which is like, I need to get my family out of here."

"But we never walked away. And as far as I'm concerned, whatever decisions are made on that side, I will never walk away," added Harry, who described his move as a royal as "stepping back rather than stepping down." "I will always be contributing ... my life is public service, so wherever I am in the world, it's going to be the same thing."

Harry's and Meghan's interview with Winfrey was announced last month, one day after Harry and Meghan revealed they are expecting their second child.

"Winfrey will speak with Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, in a wide-ranging interview, covering everything from stepping into life as a Royal, marriage, motherhood, philanthropic work to how she is handling life under intense public pressure," Viacom, the parent company of CBS, said in a statement announcing the special. "Later, the two are joined by Prince Harry as they speak about their move to the United States and their future hopes and dreams for their expanding family."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Dozens of Hong Kong activists, politicians charged for state subversion

ABC NewsBy BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News

(HONG KONG) -- Hong Kong is a step closer to being left without a democratic opposition camp as authorities brought charges against 47 activists for conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law.

It’s the most wide-reaching use yet of the controversial legislation which was imposed by Beijing eight months ago and would leave the majority of Hong Kong's once-vocal opposition detained, in prison or in exile.

They are among 55 activists and politicians who were arrested in a sweeping police operation in January. Most of them were running in or organizing an unofficial primary in July last year to select candidates for September’s legislative election which the government later announced it would postpone by a year because of the pandemic.

The 47 detainees include some of Hong Kong’s most well-known activists, including veteran democrat Benny Tai, Claudia Mo and Leung Kwok-hung. Among the younger generation of activists, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Sam Cheung were also detained. Joshua Wong, who is already in prison, was also charged. John Clancey, the American lawyer previously arrested, was not among those who were charged on Sunday. The 79-year-old has been told to report to police again on May 4.

Under Hong Kong’s security law, they could all receive a maximum sentence of life in prison.

As the 47 appeared at West Kowloon Magistracy on Monday, prosecutors argued that the primary poll was part of a ploy to veto government budgets after gaining a majority in the legislature. Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, its mini-Constitution, if a government budget is vetoed twice, then the Hong Kong leader must step down.

Outside of the court, hundreds of their supporters queued up for one of the limited seats inside the courthouse to listen to proceedings and some had been there to save a spot since 5 a.m.

By 9 a.m., the four rows of people queuing extended around the side of the court building and grew into a lively gathering -- something not seen since COVID-19 restrictions and the security law were implemented.

The crowd chanted protest slogans and held up signs calling for the 47 defendants to be released.

Yellow umbrellas were raised and some people folded out copies of the pro-democracy Apple Daily as a symbol of resistance while others flashed the three-finger Hunger Games salute, used by protesters in Myanmar and Thailand.

One supporter, who did not want to divulge her name, told ABC News she was there to “stand up to Beijing’s bullying and fight for the remaining democracy in Hong Kong.” Like many of the other supporters outside of the court, the 25-year-old wore black, “to show unity”.

By the afternoon police had raised purple and blue flags several times, warning the crowd to leave the area as they were breaching the illegal assembly and national security laws, after some citizens chanted the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

Speaking with ABC News, veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan said the subversion charge is a clear attempt to “wipe out the pro-democracy camp for future elections.”

“The absurdity of the charge also shows again that the National Security Law is an instrument of political suppression against dissent and to spread fear among the people,” said Lee.

Authorities say the primary poll was an attempt to overthrow the government.

Before reporting to a local police station on Sunday, Sam Cheung told reporters that he hopes he’s still young when he comes out of prison and that he’d planned on studying for a PhD.

“I hope everyone won’t give up on Hong Kong. Everyone fight on,” said the 27-year-old.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the United States condemns "the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong's elections" and called for their immediate release. Blinken's tweet went on to say, "Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The U.S. stands with the people of Hong Kong."

Sunday’s events come just days before China’s annual parliament is set to meet later this week for the National People’s Congress. Beijing is expected to be announcing significant changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, having said in recent weeks that only "Patriots" can run for office.

Beijing is also likely to tout the success of the security law as protests have died down since it came into effect.

Officials say the law is necessary to restore stability after mass protests gripped the semi-autonomous city for months in 2019, mounting one of the biggest challenges to China’s Communist Party rule in decades.

However, the legislation has come under intense criticism from the international community, with the U.S. and the European Union saying the law stifles freedoms meant to be guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

Prominent activists already in custody include media tycoon Jimmy Lai and 25-year-old Agnes Chow, while many others have fled the city.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Philip moved to second hospital as he continues to battle infection

Samir Hussein/ Samir Hussein/WireImageBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Prince Philip has been transferred to a second hospital as he continues to receive treatment for an infection, according to Buckingham Palace.

The Duke of Edinburgh, 99, was transferred Monday from King Edward VII Hospital in London, where he was admitted on Feb. 17, to St Bartholomew's Hospital, a teaching hospital also located in London.

In addition to receiving treatment for an infection, which the palace has not identified, Philip is also being tested and observed for a preexisting heart condition, according to Buckingham Palace.

"The Duke remains comfortable and is responding to treatment but is expected to remain in hospital until at least the end of the week," the palace said in a statement Monday.

The Duke of Edinburgh, who will turn 100 in June, was taken by car from Windsor, England, to the King Edward VII Hospital in London on Feb. 17 for what the palace initially described as a "precautionary measure" after Philip reported feeling unwell.

Philip's illness is not COVID-19-related, a royal source told ABC News.

Philip's oldest son, Prince Charles, visited his father at King Edward VII Hospital on Feb. 20 and stayed for around 30 minutes. Visitors are only allowed at the hospital in "exceptional circumstances" because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the hospital's website.

Charles, who was photographed entering the hospital wearing a face mask, is believed to be the only family member so far to have visited Philip in the hospital.

The duke's youngest child, Prince Edward, told Sky News late last month that he had spoken with his father by phone.

"As far as I'm aware, well, I did speak to him the other day, so he's a lot better thank you very much indeed, and he's looking forward to getting out, which is the most positive thing," Edward said of Philip. "So we keep our fingers crossed."

Philip's grandson, Prince William, also spoke about his condition while visiting a vaccine center in Norfolk, telling longtime royal photographer Arthur Edwards that Philip is "OK," adding, "They're keeping an eye on him."

While Philip is hospitalized in London, Queen Elizabeth remains at Windsor Castle, where she has been staying with her husband for most of the coronavirus pandemic.

The queen and Philip celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in November.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Antarctic iceberg larger than New York City breaks off ice shelf

Ray Hems/iStockBy JULIA JACOBO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- An iceberg larger than New York City has broken off an ice shelf in Antarctica, scientists say.

The 490-square mile glacier broke off the Brunt Ice Shelf, where the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station is located, the research organization announced. New York City is approximately 302 square miles.

Glaciologists have been expecting a large calving event for at least a decade, according to BAS. The first indication that the glacier would break off was in November, when a new chasm named the North Rift -- the third major crack to become active in the ice shelf in the last 10 years -- headed toward another chasm about 20 miles away.

The rift then pushed northeast more than half a mile a day starting in January, cutting through the 490-foot thick ice shelf, scientists said. The iceberg formed when the crack widened on Feb. 26, releasing it from the ice shelf.

"Our teams at BAS have been prepared for the calving of an iceberg from Brunt Ice Shelf for years," Director of British Antarctic Survey Dame Jane Francis said in a statement.

The BAS monitors the ice shelf daily using an automated network of high-precision GPS instruments surrounding the station, which measure how the ice shelf is deforming and moving. Satellite images from the European Space Agency, NASA and German satellite TerraSAR-X are also used, Francis said.

The impact of the calving event on the ice shelf is unclear, scientists said. Over the coming weeks or months the iceberg may move away or could run aground and remain close to the ice shelf, Francis said.

The BAS research station is currently closed for the Antarctic winter and will likely be unaffected by the calving event, scientists said. The BAS said the station was moved further inland in 2016 to "avoid the paths" of two chasms named "Chasm 1," which formed in 2012, and the "Halloween Crack," which formed in 2016. Neither have grown in the past 18 months.

British Antarctic Survey Director of Operations Simon Garrod said in a statement that moving the station was a "wise decision."

"Our job now is to keep a close eye on the situation and assess any potential impact of the present calving on the remaining ice shelf," Garrod said. "We continuously review our contingency plans to ensure the safety of our staff, protect our research station and maintain the delivery of the science we undertake at Halley."

Staff has only been employed at the BAS Antarctic station during the summer since 2017 due to the difficulty of evacuation during the dark winter months, when skies are pitch black.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Sweden has avoided a COVID-19 lockdown so far: Has its strategy worked?

omersukrugoksu/iStockBy GUY DAVIES and BRUNO ROEBER, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Sweden’s novel approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has drawn both praise and fierce criticism, not just inside the Scandinavian country, but across the Western world. The country has so far resisted going into lockdown, unlike the rest of Europe, even during the peak of its second wave over Christmas.

In doing so, Sweden has become a lightning rod for those in favor and against stricter social distancing measures. For some, its significantly higher COVID death rate compared to its neighbors is proof that lockdowns are essential to combat the spread, while for others, the comparative openness of Swedish society proves that a “balanced” approach to the pandemic is possible.

Now, a year into the pandemic, and with a vaccine rollout likely in the near future, their strategy continues to attract international attention. ABC News looked at the pitfalls and merits of their approach in May last year, and a year later, the evidence shows that now, as much as ever, their unique approach offers invaluable lessons to the international community for living in the long term with COVID-19.

The soft-touch approach

Denmark, Norway and Finland, with a combined population of around 16.75 million, have recorded 4,331 deaths attributed to coronavirus as of Thursday (259 per million). All three enforced lockdowns early on in the pandemic. Sweden, by contrast, has registered 12,798 deaths, and possesses a population 10.2 million, meaning it has a far higher death rate than its immediate neighbors (1,255 per million), according to Johns Hopkins University data.

For critics of the light touch approach, such as Stefan Hanson, a Swedish infectious diseases expert, such a high death rate is evidence of the failure of an overall strategy.

"The basic problem is there are no clear plans,” he told ABC News. “From the start, there never as have been. Normally when you run a public health project, you have some aims and strategies, you have some goals and you follow up, you have a monitoring system to see how things are going. But in the case of Sweden there has been nothing like that."

"It's all about having a low transmission. And Sweden hasn't put that forward as a very important thing,” he added.

In April 2020, Hanson was co-signatory to a letter from several top Swedish scientists criticizing the approach to the pandemic, which they said would cause “many unnecessary deaths.”

Yet even throughout Europe’s "second wave," which saw Stockholm’s intensive care units almost run out of beds over the Christmas period, the country has resisted the temptation to lock down, being the only country in Europe to do so. December saw a very rare intervention from King Carl XVI Gustaf, who said the country had “failed” in its approach. The strategy, pioneered by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been heavily criticized, not just at home, but abroad as well. False optimism that the capital, Stockholm, would reach "herd immunity" by fall has compounded that criticism.

Herd immunity occurs when there are enough people who have either been vaccinated or exposed to the virus that it can no longer spread in the population. Critics say that doing so by exposure to the virus creates unnecessary risk.

Yet as with so much of the data relating to COVID-19, proponents of the policy say that reading the data is a matter of perspective.

Sweden may be faring comparably better in terms of excess deaths -- those greater than the usual number of deaths expected in a certain time period. Experts say excess deaths can indicate whether policies intended to combat the pandemic have unintended consequences, such as delaying treatment for other ailments and is an important measure of the overall efficacy of policy.

While still performing worse than other Nordic countries on data from Eurostat, the official European Union statistics agency, and the University of Oxford, shows that Sweden recorded 7.9% excess deaths last year compared to the years 2016-19, according to the independent health news site Dagens Medicin.

That means that the country had the 23rd lowest annual excess deaths out of 30 European countries -- lower than the U.K. (15.1%), France (10.4%) and Spain (18.9%). Sweden also has a lower number of coronavirus deaths per million than those countries, all of which have gone under strict lockdowns during the pandemic. Pointing to the recent excess mortality studies, Nils Karlson, an economist and political scientist who jointly wrote an op-ed last year in Foreign Affairs entitled “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s,” is more optimistic.

“There was some recent figures showing that if you count excess mortality, Sweden is one of the best countries in Europe,” he told ABC News. “And one of the reason is, of course, that we didn't get the flu, just the ordinary flu, because we wash our hands. We have social distancing. We didn't have as many car accidents. You know, all kinds of other stuff that that affects us didn't happen this year.”

The resistance to lockdown, he said, is based on the idea that they are “unsustainable,” he said, and Sweden’s strategy takes into account not just economic factors, but all aspects of public life. While he acknowledges the COVID death toll was too high, he said: “You have to keep society open not only for economic reasons, but also for critical public functions to to function, like hospitals, schools and so on. Schools are still open for younger kids... Otherwise, it's remote learning. But I think it has worked fairly well.”

The care home crisis

One area where there has been consensus, however, is the crisis in the Swedish old age care sector, where the crisis has taken a terrible toll.

Care home residents have made up around half of the country’s total death toll, with a further quarter of the deaths being seen amongst over 70s who receive care at home.

“The big thing was that the whole pandemic we know that old people, like in old age care, were the people who were really the people who were mostly going to die and the people who mostly went to hospitals,” Ingmar Skoog, a Swedish psychiatrist who specializes in studying old age, told ABC News. “Despite that, they didn't take in any expert in old age.”

The Swedish government introduced more protective equipment and testing, as did other countries and restricted care home visits.

A government-appointed commission concluded in December that high rates of infection in the general population, as well as a fragmented administration which made it difficult to produce consistent policy, contributed to the crisis.

“We have found that elderly care was unprepared and ill-equipped when the pandemic struck and that this was founded in structural shortcomings that were known long before the outbreak of the virus,” the report said.

While it is “obvious” that higher rates of infection make it more likely for the virus to sweep through old age care homes, Skoog said, part of the problem has been a fundamental misunderstanding of the sheer number of person-to-person contacts those in care go through every single day.

“They meet a lot of people very intimately because, they get help with the clothing, maybe food, dressing, hygiene, going to the toilet and so on,” according to Skoog. “And people are very, very close. And that means that they meet a lot of younger people… I think one of the first things that really should have been done, was to talk with experts in the field and say, what should we do?”

But deaths at nursing facilities even plagued countries that implemented lockdowns and took measures to protect nursing home residents.

A report from the European Center for Disease Control in November found that long term care residents made up 45% of the total coronavirus deaths in France and 42.5% in Belgium -- countries that both locked down and restricted care home visits.

According to the New York Times, 34% of deaths and 5% of U.S. cases have been reported amongst nursing homes. In 10 U.S. states, the proportion of residents and staffers to have died makes up more than half of all their deaths.

“I think in general, the idea in Sweden to try to balance the risk of the virus and the risk of closing everything down because there are health problems with that, I think on a basic [level] that's very good,” he said. “But I think it's a lot of ignorance regarding aging.”

Avoiding lockdowns

Broadly speaking, Sweden has closed its international borders, including those to neighboring Norway, and allowed internal society to stay open. While there are limits on the maximum amount of people in a social gathering, these come in the form of “recommendations” rather than strict laws enforceable by fines. The use of masks on public transport, for instance, was only formally recommended in December.

Overall the strategy, designed in part to be a holistic approach that factored in the pandemic-induced changes across society, has remained intact, according to Karlson.

“I think the public discussion, the official discussion, has largely argued that that we have changed the strategy, that we have implemented more restrictions and so on,” he said. “I'm not really sure that's true. I mean, it's a shift for sure. Now we have recommendations to wear masks, for example. There are stricter restrictions on public order and things like that. But we don't have lockdowns. It's basically recommendations.”

The politicization of Sweden’s approach in American politics, where prominent Republicans have often pointed to their lax approach to masks and lockdowns, was another point of contention.

“I think it worries a lot of people, you know, in Sweden because we love the welfare state and all that,” he said. “You know, right wing groups in the U.S. starting to favor the Swedish strategy and that created some turmoil in Sweden.”

While the country has not come close to reaching “herd immunity” -- which the health journal The Lancet described as their “de facto” policy in staying open -- the lower excess mortality, psychological burden and economic performance mean that the policy could yet survive yet another wave of coronavirus infections, which have risen in recent weeks.

Stockholm, for instance is around 15% immunity, but new variants have made the task more difficult.

The political consensus that saw the country get behind their novel COVID strategy last summer has broken down, Karlson said, and opposition parties now have called for lockdowns like those seen in other countries.

“We've tried in different ways, you know, depending on our culture and our history to adjust, you know, to minimize the consequences of this terrible disease,” Karlson said. “But I think Sweden has done all right. I mean, it's not as bad as it looks when you look at the death rates, which are too high, of course.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Mother fears for son's life after dozens killed in Ecuador prison riots

MivPiv/iStockBy AICHA EL HAMMAR CASTANO and MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News

(RIO DE JANEIRO) -- It's been days since Alejandra heard from her son.

The 42-year-old mother has been one of many gathered outside a large prison in Guayaquil, a port city on Ecuador's southern coast, where dozens of inmates were killed Tuesday in a riot.

"I cannot stop thinking my son is dead," said Alejandra, who asked ABC News not to use her last name or her son's name for fear of retaliation.

Alejandra said her 26-year-old son was being held in pre-trial detention for a petty crime and that he has a court appearance scheduled for next year. She said she received a telephone call from him on Tuesday, when the violence erupted. He told her, "I am afraid to die."

Clashes broke out at the Guayaquil prison and three others across Ecuador between rival drug gangs trying "to seize the criminal leadership of the detention centers," according to Gen. Edmundo Moncayo, head of Ecuador's prison system, known by its Spanish-language acronym SNAI.

Moncayo told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that the violence was precipitated by a break in leadership of a prominent local gang called Los Choneros, whose leader was assassinated in December at a shopping mall in the port city of Manta on Ecuador's central coast.

Fernando Carrion, a research professor at FLACSO Ecuador, a postgraduate institution in Quito, told ABC News that revenge was expected but not to this level. He said Los Choneros is linked to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and that, although Ecuador does not produce drugs, criminal gangs use the South American country to transport drugs and launder money.

"We have never seen such a cruel mutiny," Carrion told ABC News. "It absolutely has never happened before in the history of Ecuador, and this is only the beginning. I believe it was an earthquake and now we will have the aftershocks."

Moncayo told reporters that a search for weapons was carried out at the Guayaquil prison on Monday, after officials were tipped off by Ecuador's national police force that inmates had two firearms smuggled to them by a guard and were planning to kill Los Choneros leaders. That search sparked a series of coordinated, simultaneous mutinies at four prisons in three different provinces the following morning, and it wasn't until the afternoon that authorities regained control, according to Moncayo.

Carrion told ABC News that the deadly riots prove what little power Ecuadorian authorities actually wield inside prisons ever since the country's principal intelligence agency, known by its Spanish-language acronym SENAIN, was shut down in 2018.

"For criminal groups, reaching this level of efficiency and planning is truly showing the problems of prison systems and lack of institutionalization," he said.

Videos recorded by inmates and shared on social media showed beheaded and mutilated corpses in the aftermath of the bloodbath.

"These attacks were not only a tragedy, but criminal groups were sending clear messages to other groups," Carrion told ABC News. "We are talking about bodies dismembered -- this is a way to communicate."

The number of dead has continued to rise in the days since. As of Friday, the death toll from the riots was 81, while 20 others remained injured, according to the National Police of Ecuador. Authorities have yet to release the names of those killed or wounded.

"As soon as I heard the news, I went straight to the prison," Alejandra told ABC News. "When I arrived, many women were already there on their knees, crying, praying."

Alejandra, who lives in Guayaquil and makes a lower-middle-class wage working in an office, said she was forced to go back to work Friday after spending two days outside the prison with other families of inmates.

"I am constantly thinking of my son," she said. "I would like to be with other mothers in front of the jail."

Alejandra is among those calling on authorities to identify the dead and wounded so they can know whether their loved ones survived the attacks.

"This is not too much to ask," she said. "They don't want to tell us anything."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Social media fight spreads in Iran as women seek to regain international travel rights

KeithBinns/iStockBy JON HAWORTH, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Iran's Alpine ski coach, Samira Zargari, couldn't join her team for the world championships in Italy last week.

The reason? Her husband barred her from leaving the country.

The reaction on social media was swift, and many Iranians vented their fury by demanding the government change the law to give women back their right to travel internationally, along with other rights stripped away after they're married.

Based on domestic family law in the Islamic Republic, women give up the right to leave the country, pursue education or even choose where to live and work upon signing a marriage document. The only exception is if a woman's husband relinquishes those rights, which rarely happens.

The only rights married women retain are limited custody of children and the right to divorce.

Zargari's case, however, went viral and different hashtags about women's rights began popping up on social media, including the "right to leave the country" and "no to discrimination against women."

When asked to comment on Zargari's case, the International Ski federation provided ABC News with a statement but did not mention Zargari by name.

"FIS sympathizes with any team member who is not able to travel to our World Championships," the statement read. "However, FIS is also not in a position to dispute the laws of any given nation."

Zahra Abdi, an Iranian poet, wrote on Twitter: "It is impossible for a society to move towards the future when the hands and feet of half the people are tied up. This is well understood by the developed countries and it is why they fight discriminatory laws against women. Wherever there is a sign of development, this struggle is taken more seriously."

An online campaign asking to revise regulations on women leaving the country was signed by almost 50,000 people in less than a week.

"The basis of the family law in Iran is that the husband has all the rights," an Iranian lawyer, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, told ABC News. "Any woman who wants any of the rights back has to swim against the river and prove it at the court."

Despite the outcry, the Iranian government hasn't budged.

Responding to the social media campaign, Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for Women and Family Affairs, tweeted that in an emergency, women can ask the court to revise a husband's decision but this can only happen after a judge is convinced the travel is "necessary," and, even then, the woman would only be allowed to leave "on bail."

The Iranian lawyer said that a bill addressing the travel issue is making its way through government, but it first has to be passed by the parliament, and the language, as it currently stands, is very "vague" when addressing how exactly judges would deem travel necessary. The lack of clarity also may delay any movement on the bill.

"Basically," the lawyer told ABC News, "the 'necessity' mentioned in the bill is based on the need for medical treatment out of the country, attending scientific conferences and, more recently, attending sport events like international championships."

In one of the first reactions to the issue, Zargari wrote in a story on her Instagram page that her husband was born in the United States and was not raised in Iran, seeming to imply that discriminatory laws remain in place regardless of a person's citizenship.

However, when she later told the Iranian Students News Agency in an interview that government officials should "at least remove this law for women champions and those who are active in the international fields," a huge backlash was sparked, this time against Zargari. Many who supported her on social media during her ordeal began to criticize her for not standing up for all women -- not just those who work internationally.

"Unfortunately, Ms. Zargari has said that she hopes the law that needs husbands' permission for leaving the country is removed for women who work in the international fields. The right thing to say would be that this law is cruel and humiliating and medieval, and no woman needs her husband's 'permission' to travel," journalist Yosra Bakhakh tweeted.

Explaining how such social media campaigns can help return these rights to women, the Iranian lawyer referred to the ambiguities of the law that could result in minimal reforms.

"For example, it is up to the common sense in the court what 'necessity' means for a woman's demand to leave the country. In the past, traveling abroad to attend sport events would not be a case of necessity. But, thanks to all activism through the years, it has become so. It matters that people would not stop asking for more," she said.

It is clear, however, that women's rights activists are paying an enormous price to achieve equality.

Just last week, Najmeh Vahedi, a sociologist, and Hoda Amid, a lawyer, who held workshops to tell women how to preserve their rights upon marriage, were sentenced to seven and eight years imprisonment, respectively.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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