Myanmar refugees in Thailand start interviews for US resettlement

Bangkok — Interviews have begun with Myanmar refugees living in Thailand who are eligible for a new resettlement program in the United States, the Thai government said.

Thailand said it hopes the first group may get to move by the end of the year.

Some 90,000 refugees live in nine camps on the Thai side of the border to escape fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic minority rebel armies vying for autonomy. Some of the refugees were born in the camps, which started to form in the mid-1980s, and many have lived in them for decades.

Persistent fighting in Myanmar, amplified by a military coup in February 2021, has kept most from returning home.

Aiming to give the refugees a safe way out of the camps, Thailand, the United States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced the resettlement plan in May 2023.

One year on, Thailand’s Ministry of Interior says that the Thai government and UNHCR have finished checking the personal information of the refugees to verify their eligibility for the program. More than 80,000 refugees were deemed eligible, and nearly all of them told officials they wanted to resettle.

“After that, the U.S. team went to the first two camps for interviews, which have already been done,” Zcongklod Khawjang, an interior ministry official in charge of overseeing the resettlement program, told VOA this week.

The two camps — Ban Don Yang and Tham Hin — are among the smallest of nine and host about 8,750 refugees combined.

Zcongklod said the U.S. Embassy in Thailand has not told the Thai government when the authorized refugees would be resettled or when interviews in the other seven camps would begin. But he added that Thailand was expecting the “first batch” to move to the U.S. sometime this year.

Hayso Thako, a joint secretary with the Karen Refugee Committee, one of the charities working in the camps, said he received the same message from the UNHCR at a meeting in March.

“They said most probably the first group would be able to leave by the end, almost the end of this year,” he said.

The UNHCR declined to comment on when resettlement might begin and referred the question to the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to provide a time frame.

“Resettlement operations are ongoing in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government,” the U.S. Embassy told VOA by email, attributing the comment to “a U.S. official.”

The embassy also would not say how many of the 80,000-plus eligible refugees the U.S. was prepared to take in, either annually or in total. Zcongklod said the embassy has not provided the Thai government with those figures, either.

The Border Consortium, a network of charities that coordinate much of the international aid that reached the camps, said it has not been provided with official figures but said plans for the program appear to have been scaled down over time.

“Figures have changes. At the beginning, it was this number of people who could be resettled … and maybe now it could be a lower number of people who could be resettled,” Leon de Riedmatten, executive director of The Border Consortium, told VOA.

Even so, he said, “It’s important for the residents in the camps themselves that there is still the possibility of resettlement. I think this is the main message, even if it’s not going to be so many people who are going to be resettled to the United States.”

Thailand has denied the refugees a regular path to gaining permanent legal residence and keeps tight control over their movements in and out of the camps.

Myanmar’s 2021 coup brought the country’s brief experiment with democracy to a halt, plunging it into civil war and dashing hopes that the refugees could return safely anytime soon.

Hayso Thako and de Riedmatten said it would help if other countries committed to taking in some of the refugees.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA it has encouraged more countries to join the resettlement program.

A previous program ended about five years ago after resettling thousands of refugees in the United States and a few other countries.

Without a clear idea of how many of the refugees the new program can handle, and no end in sight to the civil war raging in Myanmar, charities say the Thai government should also give the refugees the opportunity to settle permanently in Thailand.

“I think it’s key. It’s very, very important, because we cannot expect that all these refugees will be resettled. We cannot expect also that a large part of these refugees will return to Myanmar. So the ones, the majority, who will be left in the camps should have a better future,” de Riedmatten said.

Even after four decades, most of the camps still lack electricity and running water. Most homes are huts of bamboo and eucalyptus poles topped with thatched roofs.

The refugees are mostly barred from studying or working outside of the camps, have few job opportunities inside and receive an average of about $9 in food aid a month.

Some advocates say a growing sense of despair across the camps is causing a rise in domestic abuse, gang violence, drug use and suicide.

“Living in the camps is not easy,” Eh Nay Moo, 30, who fled Myanmar with his parents when he was three years old, told VOA.

“Here, we are just illegal people. … There is no freedom for us. Going here and there outside of the camp, we are not allowed,” he said from Mae La, the largest of the nine camps on the border.

Having spent almost his entire life in the camps, Eh Nay Moo said he cannot imagine returning to Myanmar but sees no real future for himself in the camps.

Eh Nay Moo said he has applied for the new resettlement program and is eagerly awaiting an interview.

“If I get a chance to move to the U.S. … I believe that I will get more opportunity or freedom to do and live my life as a human being,” he said.

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Africa home to nearly half of global displaced population, IDMC reports

Nairobi, Kenya — A record 75.9 million people are living in internal displacement due to conflict, and nearly half that number is in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent report.

The report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, or IDMC, shows 34.8 million people in the region were displaced in 2023, up from the previous year. The biggest increase came in Sudan, which is currently in the midst of civil war.

Sudanese doctor Aisha Hassan is among the millions of people newly displaced last year. 

The doctor said that when she arrived for work at a hospital to tend to those injured in the country’s ongoing civil war, she faced threats from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and gangs. The RSF has been at war with the Sudanese armed forces since April of last year. 

The threat forced her to leave her patients and her city, Omdurman, northwest of the capital, Khartoum. Hassan said she and her family fled to safety. 

“From there I went to North Sudan Al-Shimaliyya, it’s called Karima. We stayed there for three months, and my family and I went to Port Sudan. From there we displaced here to Uganda,” she said. 

Fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the RSF has displaced 9.1 million since April 2023, making Sudan the country with the most displaced people globally. According to the IDMC, the number marks “the most ever recorded in a single country since records began in 2008.” 

The conflict has made it difficult for aid agencies to reach the millions in need, triggering more displacement as people search for food, water, medicine and safety.  

Elsewhere, fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo between the army and rebels has displaced close to 7 million people. Conflict in Ethiopia that began with a two-year war in Tigray in 2020, and erupted in many parts of the country, displaced 790,000 people last year.  

Africa’s conflicts are usually over territory, community politics, and control over resources, with at least 10 African countries, predominantly in West Africa, dealing with terrorism-related conflicts. 

Burkina Faso is the most affected of the West African countries, with 700,000 people displaced last year, up 61 percent from 2022.  

“A rising conflict is really contributing to the rising trend, and especially weather-related disasters, including floods, storms, and drought, are also contributing to pushing the figures to an all-time high,” said Vicente Anzellini, coordinator and lead author of the IDMC report. “So all of this is really a concerning trend. It’s important to underscore, however, that governments and humanitarian actors are taking more action and are producing more data. And this, of course, influences the trend.” 

Anzellini said governments need to improve their capabilities to resolve conflicts and cope with natural disasters.  

“What we’re really seeing in the region should be a reason for concern and more efforts need to be put in conflict resolution, of peace building, and disaster risk reduction across this region to reduce the trend that, again, highly influences the global trend,” Anzellini said. “So if internal displacement is addressed and reduced in Africa, the global trend will also successfully reduce. And it’s unfortunately not a trend that we’re seeing in the last couple of years. And for this to happen more government leadership and investments will be needed.” 

The Swiss-based agency says the overwhelming majority of the displaced stay in their own countries as they struggle to survive and rebuild their lives. 

For Hassan, it was too dangerous for her to stay, as armed groups started to loot her family’s home while she was working in the hospital in Sudan. 

“After two months or so, the Rapid Support team came and resided in our home,” she said. “Now they are living in our home. I don’t know how many of them there are, but they told us they are living there. They took my father’s car, and they are living there.” 

The IDMC says no country is immune to disaster displacement and that conflicts in Sudan, the DRC, and the Palestinian territories drove up the number around the world.

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Investors line up for South Africa’s nuclear energy technology

International investors have been lining up for South African nuclear energy technology this year. Two partnerships have been announced aimed at financing the manufacture of a new prototype, small-scale reactor developed in South Africa. One partner includes a collective of family farmers whose businesses are suffering from the country’s unreliable power grid. Marize de Klerk reports from South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.

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Chinese journalist freed after four years in prison for COVID reporting

Washington — In early 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a handful of citizen journalists emerged as voices from the epicenter.

Among them was Zhang Zhan, then a 36-year-old former lawyer who bravely chronicled the unfolding crisis in the city where the virus first surfaced.

Standing in front of a Wuhan train station in her final YouTube video on May 13, 2020, she voiced concerns about the human rights abuses she witnessed during the lockdown and criticized police involvement in enforcing containment measures.

Following “this last video,” she vanished, according to Jane Wang, a U.K.-based activist who launched the Free Zhang Zhan campaign.

“The date of her arrest should be 14th May, but it could have happened on the evening of the 13th, so we aren’t sure,” Wang told VOA. “The time she spent on the train escorted by police to Shanghai from Wuhan is in between.”

In December 2020, the Chinese government sentenced her to four years in prison for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

On Monday, Wang posted a 28-second video to X, formerly known as Twitter, in which Zhang confirmed her release from prison on May 13 and wished well to the people who were concerned about her well-being.

“Hello, everyone, I am Zhang Zhan. At five o’clock in the morning on May 13, the police brought me to my brother’s home in Shanghai. Thank you all for your help and concern for me. Hope everyone is well. I really don’t have anything to say,” Zhang said in the video.

The video came one week after Zhang was expected to be released from Shanghai Women’s Prison on May 13, but she did not publicly surface for several days. On May 17, the U.S. State Department issued a statement expressing concern about her disappearance after her apparent release.

“The United States has repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and authorities’ mistreatment of her,” the State Department said at that time. “We reiterate our call for the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to respect the human rights of Ms. Zhang, including by immediately ending the restrictive measures that she and all journalists in the PRC face.”

The State Department urged China to ensure the safety and freedom of journalists in the country, emphasizing the importance of enabling them to report freely.

Additionally, the State Department’s recently released human rights report on China pointed out “serious restrictions” on freedom of expression and media, including criminal prosecution of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others.” It also cited the arrest of “countless citizens” for allegedly “spreading fake news.”

Several other citizen journalists faced disappearances like Zhang’s and later were sentenced to prison for documenting the initial stages of the pandemic in China.

Any expression of views differing from the government on pandemic-related matters continues to be a sensitive issue in China, according to Lin Shengliang, founder of the China Human Rights Accountability Database.

“The Chinese authorities often resort to both soft and hard tactics to the parties involved in order to silence them,” Lin told VOA.

According to Li Yong, a Wuhan citizen who shared the U.S. State Department’s statement on Zhang in a WeChat group, the Chinese State Security forces warned him not to share information about Zhang.

“The local community’s state security officer said, ‘These posts are no longer allowed. Be silent. Things involving Zhang Zhan are not allowed [to be shared].’ Anyway, I promised not to post it again,” Li told VOA.

According to Li, he befriended Zhang when she came to Wuhan in 2020.

“I advised her to take a step back [in her criticism of the government]. But she was a person of faith and was more persistent at that time,” Li said.

According to Wang, the U.K.-based activist, Zhang is a “devoted Christian” who openly expressed her faith.

“Her church was shut down [four years ago] and banned from gathering before she went to Wuhan,” Wang said. “It’s a big question mark whether she [currently] is allowed to travel to another city or even attend a church gathering in Shanghai.”

Wang said that Zhang’s situation may change “dramatically” when and if the authorities decide to step up surveillance against her.

“Right now, guards are watching her apartment, and she is being followed everywhere, but she still can leave her flat and has her phone and WeChat account,” Wang said, citing a friend of Zhan’s, whose name she didn’t want to disclose for safety reasons. “The worst is for plainclothes [police] to break in and stay in the home, taking her phone away.”

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Fine dining in space — with an astronomical price tag

Fine dining in space — if you can stomach the price tag. Plus, a new understanding of the sun’s magnetic field, and Europe’s newest astronauts get their mission assignments. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space

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Kenyan climber found dead on Mount Everest in Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal — A climber from Kenya attempting to scale the world’s highest mountain has been found dead near the summit, officials said Thursday.

The body of Cheruiyot Kirui was found on Mount Everest, said Khim Lal Gautam, a government official at the mountain’s base camp. It was unclear when the body would be recovered because it would be difficult to carry at that altitude due to the low oxygen level.

The climb by Kirui, a 40-year-old banker at Kenya Commercial Bank, had been closely followed in Kenya, and fellow climber James Muhia had posted frequent updates about the attempt online.

“It is a sad day,” Muhia wrote Thursday on X. “Our brother is now one with the mountain. It will be a difficult time. Go well my brother.”

Kenyan foreign ministry secretary, Korir Sing’oei, said he had met with Kirui before his trip to Nepal, and described him as fearless and audacious.

“Really gutted by this news,” Sing’oei wrote on X. “I have been following his exploits until this unfortunate end. He is a fearless, audacious spirit, and represents the indomitable will of many Kenyans. We shall miss him.”

Officials said more than 450 climbers have scaled Mount Everest from the Nepali side of the peak in the south this season. Three climbers were reported killed and four are still missing on Mount Everest this season, which ends in a few days.

Most climbing of Everest and nearby Himalayan peaks is done in April and May when weather conditions are most favorable.

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Extreme heatwave disrupts education for half of Pakistan’s schoolchildren

Islamabad — Pakistan has temporarily shut down schools in most parts of the country to protect children from heatstroke and dehydration due to an ongoing climate-induced heat wave. 

“At least 26 million children in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, – or 52 percent of the country’s total number of pupils in pre-primary, primary and secondary education – will be out of school from 25 to 31 May,” Save the Children said Thursday.

The education department in Punjab cited a temperature surge and a prolonged heat wave as reasons for shutting down all public and private schools across the province. However, it said that schools “will be allowed to conduct examinations as scheduled, with necessary precautions to ensure the safety of students.”

On Thursday, doctors in major urban centers reported treating hundreds of patients for heatstroke.

This is not the first time extreme weather has disrupted educational activities in the South Asian nation, which has a population of about 250 million people. 

In 2022, Pakistan’s southern and southwestern regions experienced devastating floods triggered by climate change-induced erratic monsoon rains, which affected 33 million people and halted education activities. 

“Pakistan ranks fifth among the countries most affected by global warming,” Rubina Khursheed Alam, the prime minister’s climate coordinator, told a news conference in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. She cited recent unusually heavy rains, floods, and soaring temperatures.

Alam said 26 districts in Punjab, southern Sindh, and southwestern Baluchistan provinces are experiencing an intense heat wave, which will persist for at least a week. 

She advised the public to minimize exposure to direct sunlight during peak heat hours and stay hydrated, warning that the extreme heat and dry conditions could spark bush fires and forest fires in vulnerable districts.

This past April was the wettest in Pakistan since 1961, with more than double the usual monthly rainfall, killing scores of people and destroying property as well as farmland. 

Offiicials say due to climate change, temperatures in some of the affected areas in Pakistan have already reached close to 50 degrees Celsius (over 127 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meteorological Department officials said temperatures in northern and northwestern Pakistani areas would be “4-6 °C higher than normal” for the rest of the week.

Pakistan contributes less than 1% to global carbon emissions but bears the brunt of climate change.

Save the Children said the country “faces rates of warming considerably above the global average with a potential rise of 1.3°C–4.9°C by the 2090s, and the frequency of extreme climate events in Pakistan is projected to increase as well.”

The flooding in 2022 resulted in at least 1,700 deaths, affecting 33 million people and submerging approximately one-third of Pakistan. 

“Let’s stop sleepwalking towards the destruction of our planet by climate change,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after visiting flood-hit areas in Pakistan. He said Pakistanis were “facing a monsoon on steroids — the relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding.”

The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said Thursday temperatures spiked to 43-47 degrees Celsius on Sunday across India’s many northern states, including New Delhi. 

The agency warned in a statement that “the soaring temperatures across South Asia can put millions of children’s health at risk if they are not protected or hydrated.” 

UNICEF noted that 76% of children under 18 in South Asia, about 460 million, were exposed to extremely high temperatures, with 83 or more days in a year exceeding 35 degrees Celsius. It estimated that 28% of children across South Asia were exposed to 4.5 or more heat waves per year, compared to 24% globally.

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Thousands of Pakistani students flee Kyrgyzstan amid attacks on universities, hostels

WASHINGTON — Hoor Mehtab, a Pakistani medical student in Kyrgyzstan, was among the first students to return to Pakistan following Kyrgyzstani mob attacks on foreign students, including Pakistanis and Indians, in various Bishkek universities and hostels May 17.   

Mehteb said she and others were dining in a cafe serving Pakistani food when they received messages from classmates at their hostel that a mob had attacked the hostel and Avicenna International Medical University where they were students.  

Mehteb said the cafe owner offered her and 59 other Pakistani and Indian students refuge in the basement, where they stayed for 14 hours. 

“It was suffocating,” she told VOA. 

Mehtab was among nearly 4,000 Pakistani students who left their studies in Bishkek and returned to Pakistan after the violence, which lasted for several hours over May 17 and 18.  

Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website the day after the attack that the violence was triggered by the appearance of a social media video purportedly showing a group of “persons of Asian appearance,” said by eyewitnesses to be Egyptians, harassing foreign students on the night of May 13. The statement said the police charged four foreign students with hooliganism and detained them. Police did not release the students’ identities. 

Kyrgyz Deputy Education Minister Rasul Abazbek, speaking to reporters Monday in Bishkek, called the mass attacks on Pakistani and Indian students “shameful.” 

“We must not lose this reputation to be hub of education,” Abazbek said. 

Parents of students who are still in Bishkek say they are worried about the safety of their sons and daughters.   

“My family is worried. I have to borrow $320 to send it to my daughter and son to buy air tickets so they can come back home,” Sardar Asif Ali, a Pakistani father in Mardan city, in Pakistan’s northwest, told VOA. 

According to official estimates, there are 11,000 Pakistanis in Kyrgyzstan, mostly students.   

Pakistani Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar was in Bishkek this week to ensure the safety of the Pakistani students. At a press briefing Wednesday in Islamabad, Dar said about 4,000 Pakistanis are expected to return from Kyrgyzstan.  

Pakistan has launched special flights to repatriate its citizens. A flight arranged by the Pakistani government arrived at Bacha Khan International Airport in the northwestern city of Peshawar early Wednesday, carrying 200 students from Bishkek. 

Among them was Azra Alam, a Pakistani student in her third year of medical studies in Bishkek. 

“We were stuck in our rooms for six days and scared every minute,” she told VOA. She said she is uncertain about her future studies at Bishkek. 

Medical schools in the former Soviet republics are popular among South Asian students because of lower costs, proximity and lower qualification requirements. Students and parents say the cost for a year of tuition for a medical school in Kyrgyzstan is roughly $3,000. 

This story originated in VOA’s Deewa service with contributions by Urdu Service. Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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Chad swears in president, ending years of military rule

DAKAR, Senegal — Chad swore in Mahamat Deby Itno as the president on Thursday after holding elections earlier this month, completing a disputed transition to democratic rule after he seized power three years ago. 

Deby Itno, also known as Mahamat Idriss Deby, took power after his father Idriss Deby Itno was killed fighting rebels in 2021 after ruling the country for three decades. The long-delayed May 6 election came after three years of military rule. 

His main rival, Succes Masra, who contested the results earlier this month, resigned from his post as prime minister on Wednesday. Masra had been involved in protests against Deby Itno’s decision to extend his time in power and fled the country in 2022. He was allowed to return last year and was appointed prime minister. 

Masra, who claimed to have won the election, filed an appeal to challenge the preliminary results, which showed Deby Itno had won, but it was dismissed. The oil-exporting country of nearly 18 million people hasn’t had a democratic transfer of power since it became independent in 1960, after decades of French colonial rule. 

In his first presidential address, Deby Itno said his government would focus on boosting Chad’s agricultural and farming sectors, and investing in education, access to water and health care. 

“I’ve heard your yearning for change, and I’ve understood you. Let’s all play our part, individually and collectively, to bring about the change we all hope, desire and expect,” he said. 

Western leaders congratulated Deby Itno despite irregularities in the vote, which included Chad’s decision to ban 2,900 EU-trained observers from monitoring the election. 

Chad is seen by the United States and France as one of the last remaining stable allies in the vast Sahel region following military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in recent years. The ruling juntas in all three nations have expelled French forces and turned to Russia’s mercenary units for security assistance instead. 

“Although there were troubling shortcomings, we welcome the milestones in Chad’s transition process,” the U.S. State Department said last week. 

The British government also said the election marked an important milestone in the return to civilian rule. “The U.K. commends the engagement of the Chadian people and welcomes the largely peaceful way in which the elections and campaign were conducted,” it said in a statement. 

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Justice Department says illegal monopoly by Ticketmaster and Live Nation drives up prices for fans

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department filed a sweeping antitrust lawsuit against Ticketmaster and parent company Live Nation Entertainment on Thursday, accusing them of running an illegal monopoly over live events in America — squelching competition and driving up prices for fans.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, was being brought with 30 state and district attorneys general and seeks to break up the monopoly they say is squeezing out smaller promoters and hurting artists.

“We allege that Live Nation relies on unlawful, anticompetitive conduct to exercise its monopolistic control over the live events industry in the United States at the cost of fans, artists, smaller promoters, and venue operators,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “The result is that fans pay more in fees, artists have fewer opportunities to play concerts, smaller promoters get squeezed out, and venues have fewer real choices for ticketing services. It is time to break up Live Nation-Ticketmaster.”

The Justice Department accuses Live Nation of a slew of practices that allow it to maintain a stronghold over the live music scene, including using long-term contracts to keep venues from choosing rival ticketers, blocking venues from using multiple ticket sellers and threatening venues that they could lose money and fans if they don’t choose Ticketmaster. The Justice Department says Live Nation also threatened to retaliate against one firm if it didn’t stop a subsidiary from competing for artist promotion contracts.

Live Nation has denied that it engages in practices that violate antitrust laws. When it was reported that the company was under federal investigation in 2022, the concert promoter said in a statement that Ticketmaster enjoys a such a large share of the market because of “the large gap that exists between the quality of the Ticketmaster system and the next best primary ticketing system.”

But competitor ticket sellers have long complained that Live Nation makes it difficult for them to disrupt the market with practices such as withholding acts if those venues don’t agree to use Ticketmaster’s service.

The lawsuit is the latest example of the Biden administration’s aggressive antitrust enforcement approach targeting companies accused of engaging in illegal monopolies that box out competitors and drive up prices. In March, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging that the tech giant has monopoly power in the smartphone market. The Democratic administration has also taken on Google, Amazon and other tech giants.

“Today’s action is a step forward in making this era of live music more accessible for the fans, the artists, and the industry that supports them,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

Ticketmaster, which merged with Live Nation in 2010, is the world’s largest ticket seller, processing 500 million tickets each year in more than 30 countries. Around 70% of tickets for major concert venues in the U.S. are sold through Ticketmaster, according to data in a federal lawsuit filed by consumers in 2022. The company owns or controls more than 265 of North America’s concert venues and dozens of top amphitheaters, according to the Justice Department.

The ticket seller sparked outrage in November 2022 when its site crashed during a presale event for a Taylor Swift stadium tour. The company said its site was overwhelmed by both fans and attacks from bots, which were posing as consumers to scoop up tickets and sell them on secondary sites. The debacle prompted congressional hearings and bills in state legislatures aimed at better protecting consumers.

The Justice Department allowed Live Nation and Ticketmaster to merge as long as Live Nation agreed not to retaliate against concert venues for using other ticket companies for 10 years. In 2019, the department investigated and found that Live Nation had “repeatedly” violated that agreement and extended the prohibition on retaliating against concert venues to 2025.


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Bangkok hospital: most seriously injured from turbulence-hit flight need spinal operations 

Bangkok — Many of the more seriously injured people who were on the Singapore Airlines flight that hit severe turbulence need operations on their spines, a Bangkok hospital said Thursday.

Twenty people remained in intensive care and a 73-year-old British man died after the Boeing 777, which was flying from London’s Heathrow airport to Singapore, descended following turbulent weather over the Andaman Sea on Tuesday.

A public relations officer for Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital, which has treated more than 100 people hurt from the ordeal, told The Associated Press that other local hospitals have been asked to lend their best specialists to assist in the treatments. He asked not to be named because of hospital policy.

Passengers have described the “sheer terror” of the aircraft shuddering, loose items flying and injured people lying paralyzed on the floor of the plane.

It remains unclear what exactly caused the turbulence that sent the plane, which was carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew members, on a 6,000-foot (around 1,800-meter) descent in about three minutes. The flight from London to Singapore was diverted to Thailand.

In one of the latest accounts of the chaos on board, 43-year-old Malaysian Amelia Lim described finding herself face down on the floor. 

“I was so afraid … I could see so many individuals on the floor, they were all bleeding. There was blood on the floor as well as on the people,” she told the online Malay Mail newspaper.

The woman who had been seated next to her was “motionless in the aisle and unable to move, likely suffering from a hip or spinal injury,” she added.

The ICU patients included six Britons, six Malaysians, three Australians, two Singaporeans and one person each from Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the Philippines, Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital said. It said it had provided medical care to a total of 104 people.

Thai authorities said the British man who died possibly had a heart attack. Passengers have described how the flight crew tried to revive him by performing CPR for about 20 minutes.

Most people associate turbulence with heavy storms, but the most dangerous type is so-called clear air turbulence. Wind shear can occur in wispy cirrus clouds or even in clear air near thunderstorms, as differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.

According to a 2021 report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence accounted for 37.6% of all accidents on larger commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration, another U.S. government agency, has said there were 146 serious injuries from turbulence from 2009 to 2021.

Tourism and aviation expert Anita Mendiratta, who is based in London, said the extreme turbulence was “extremely unusual.”

She said passengers should listen to instructions to keep their seatbelts on, ensure that hand baggage is put away safely when not in use, and reduce items stowed in the overhead compartments.

“When there is turbulence, those doors can open and all of the items up top, whether it’s our hand baggage, our jackets, our duty free items, they become movable and they become a risk to us all,” she told The Associated Press.

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US elevates security relationship with Kenya at state visit

The White House — The United States will designate Kenya as its first major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa, the White House said as President Joe Biden on Thursday welcomed President William Ruto for a state visit. The significant strategic move signals the shifting of U.S. security cooperation to East Africa just as U.S. troops prepare to depart Niger, leaving a vacuum that Russian forces have begun to fill.

The designation gives non-members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization access to military and financial advantages that NATO members enjoy, but without the mutual defense agreement that holds NATO together. A senior administration official told reporters late Wednesday that Biden would inform Congress of the designation, which takes 30 days to take effect.

The official said the move aims at “elevating and really acknowledging that Kenya is already a global partner of ours.”

In the meantime, Ruto and Biden are using their daylong deliberations to iron out Kenya’s plan to send 1,000 security officers to the fragile, chaotic Caribbean nation of Haiti. The initiative, toward which the United States has pledged $300 million in support, faces stiff political and legal challenges in Kenya. The mission was also delayed when Haitian armed gangs took control while the nation’s leader, Ariel Henry, was visiting Kenya in March. Henry resigned in April and has not returned to the island.

The official said that Ruto would meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the mission but promised no progress.

“This is definitely an ongoing area of collaboration,” the official said.

And the White House on Thursday also rolled out a number of security-related agreements, which include training opportunities and military exercises, assistance in managing refugees, U.S. investments in Kenya’s security sector, counterterrorism efforts including increased information sharing and, on top of all this, 16 helicopters and 150 armored vehicles.

From bombs to bonbons

Washington also made millions of dollars of commitments toward a number of efforts the U.S. sees as key to development. Those include areas like democracy, health, education, arts and culture, climate management, trade, technology, and the one item Ruto said was his main priority on his four-day swing through the United States: work to restructure African nations’ crippling debt to the world’s largest creditor, China.

But the lengthy list of American pledges was absent the roads, bridges and railroad projects that African leaders have long said they need to keep up with their exploding populations. For those, they turn to China’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative, which counts the African continent as the largest beneficiary of its massive, $1 trillion global project.

This, analysts say, represents Africa’s new stance as its young democracies mature, less than a century after liberation from colonialism: In a world of competition among the world’s great powers, they want to be somewhere in the middle.

“I think many U.S. officials see this very much as a zero-sum game in this kind of great power competition to gain influence,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “African countries don’t see it that way. They actually see the benefit of being able to partner with China on trade, with Russia on security and with Washington on development, and they don’t see any inconsistency in that approach.”

“And I think unless and until Washington becomes much more comfortable with seeing their privileged relationships become partnerized with other countries, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Washington to really chart a course forward with many of these countries,” he added.

This is the first White House state visit by an African leader in nearly 16 years, and that significance was not lost on first lady Jill Biden, who, ahead of her sixth state dinner, spoke of a glass-ceilinged pavilion set under the stars, of a gospel choir and shag carpets and “the glow of candles in a space saturated with warm pinks and reds.”

White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford narrated a menu of chilled green tomato soup touched with sweet onions and drizzled with white balsamic vinegar and fine Californian olive oil, of butter-poached lobster and seasonal bounties reminiscent of American summer. She lavished words on the bed of kale and roasted corn and corn puree and roasted turnips and sweet potatoes and squash but touched just briefly on the one item that is seen as a hallmark of a fine Kenyan feast:

“Red meat,” she said.

Specifically, she said, they are marinated and smoked short ribs, perched atop that farmers’ market worth of produce.

But it was the unnamed administration official who teased the star that could outshine all the others on this glittering night: the first and only American president of Kenyan ancestry.

When asked by a journalist if former President Barack Obama – born to a Kenyan father and an American mother – would make an appearance at the lavish dinner, the official hesitated.

“I’ll go to a quote from another former president, President Trump,” the official finally replied. And then: “‘We’ll see what happens.’”

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China begins military drills around Taiwan as ‘punishment’ for new leader

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China kicked off a two-day large-scale military exercise in the water and airspace around Taiwan on Thursday, emphasizing that it is “a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence forces’” and “a stern warning” against provocation by external forces.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct drills in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south, and east of Taiwan as well as in areas near Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen and Matsu islands, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The drills, which involve the army, navy, air force, and rocket force of the Eastern theater command, will concentrate on joint sea-air combat readiness patrol, joint seizure of comprehensive battlefield control, and joint precision strikes on key targets, Eastern Theater Command spokesperson Li Xi said.

Some analysts say the exercise is part of Beijing’s display of anger toward Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te, who took office Monday.

The military exercise is “meant to be a warning to both the Lai administration and Washington that it can and will continue to put the squeeze on Taiwan if Lai does not return to a more moderate tone and approach” to cross-strait relations, Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at International Crisis Group, said.

However, despite the attempt to push the new Taiwanese government to soften its position, Hsiao said Beijing’s forceful response may have the opposite effect.

“Given the Lai administration’s deep distrust of Beijing and the domestic pressures they are currently facing, Taipei may hold even firmer to their cross-strait line,” she told VOA in a written response.

In response to the Chinese military’s announcement, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Beijing’s “irrational provocation” will damage regional peace and stability and that it will take practical actions, including deploying Taiwan’s naval, air, and ground forces, to protect freedom and safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Some Taiwanese military analysts say the priority for Taiwan is to keep strengthening its defense capabilities and enhance Taiwan’s defense budget.

“The Chinese military exercise is part of Beijing’s long-term pressure campaign against Taiwan, so Taipei needs to ensure it has enough defense capabilities to withstand the growing pressure from Beijing and maintain peace in the region,” Su Tzu-yun, a military expert at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told VOA by phone.

A firmer assertion of Taiwan’s sovereignty

China’s large-scale military exercise around Taiwan comes after Beijing criticized Lai for his “downright confession of Taiwan independence” through his inauguration speech Monday.

“The speech fully demonstrated that Lai is ‘a traitor to mainstream public opinion on the island and a disruptor of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,’” said Chen Binhua, the spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations.

He reiterated that “Taiwan independence is a dead end” and that attempts to pursue “Taiwan independence” through support from external forces will only backfire.

“However, in response to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities’ collusion with external forces to provoke and seek independence, we must counteract and punish them,” Chen said during a regular press conference on Tuesday, according to Xinhua.

During his inauguration speech on Monday, Lai urged Beijing to cease political and military intimidation against Taiwan and proposed that both sides could start cross-strait exchange through the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis or enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions.

However, he also warned the Taiwanese people of China’s ambition to “annex Taiwan” and reiterated that “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.”

Hsiao, from the International Crisis Group, said what Lai said in the speech suggests a potential deviation from his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen’s more moderate approach to cross-strait relations.

“He didn’t reaffirm the conciliatory gesture that Tsai offered, that cross-strait relations would be conducted in accordance with the Republic of China’s constitution,” she told VOA.

During her inauguration address in 2020, Tsai said Taiwan would handle cross-strait affairs according to the Republic of China’s constitution and the Act Governing Relations between People of Taiwan and “the mainland area,” which she said had been the island’s consistent position to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. However, Lai didn’t reaffirm the same position in his inauguration speech on Monday.

In her view, while Tsai maintained some ambiguities in her characterization of cross-strait relations, Lai “appears resistant to doing so.” “He wants to state clearly and loudly that China and Taiwan are two separate states [and] his calculation may be that Tsai’s moderate approach didn’t pay off after all,” Hsiao added.

Some experts say since Thursday’s military exercise has been called the “Joint Sword 2024A,” this suggests that China could conduct more military exercises of the similar scale in the near future. “Since Beijing is extremely disappointed and even furious now, more strong responses will follow,” Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science at Bucknell University, told VOA in a written response.

During a speech on Thursday in the Australian capital Canberra, Deputy Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka said China’s military exercises around Taiwan are “concerning” but not unexpected. He added that the Chinese military practiced maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait in 2023 that would be key to a potential invasion of the island.

Taiwan military analyst Su said China’s latest military exercise around Taiwan may create backlash for Beijing.

“Thursday’s exercise will only prove that China’s threat to Taiwan is real and it may convince like-minded democracies, especially the United States, to be more engaged in relevant efforts to deter Beijing from continuing such behaviors,” he told VOA.

Going forward, Hsiao said the dynamic between Taiwan and China “looks bleak.”

“[While] limiting the escalation of tensions is possible, it will require Beijing recognize that its pressures are unlikely to be effective and the Lai administration to see value in signaling a more moderate line,” she told VOA.

Additionally, Hsiao said she thinks Washington’s response may also affect cross-strait dynamics since there are no direct channels of communication between Beijing and Taipei.

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India determined to end World Cup title drought

NEW DELHI — In the ever-growing Twenty20 cricket landscape, India boasts the richest and most-watched league in the world. Yet all that investment and attention hasn’t translated into international success for India’s national team.

Rohit Sharma’s India squad travels to the T20 World Cup in the United States and Caribbean in search of a second title to end a long drought.

Undoubtedly, the Indian Premier League is flush with cash and talent, attracting the best cricketers from across the world.

Since the advent of IPL, though, India hasn’t lifted the World Cup trophy. 

After winning the inaugural T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007, India has only reached one more final — losing to Sri Lanka in 2014.

The title drought crosses formats, too. India last won an International Cricket Council title in 2013 – the Champions Trophy in England. It last lifted the Cricket World Cup in the 50-over format in 2011.

Last year was an exceptional one in that sense – India lost the World Test Championship final to Australia in England and, a few months later, also lost the 50-over World Cup final to Australia, this time on home soil.

That caused major anguish in a cricket-mad country of 1.4 billion, considering India was on a 10-0 winning streak and a hot favorite going into the final.

Seven months later, Sharma and star batter Virat Kohli are leading the campaign in what in all probability will be their last T20 tournament in India’s blue.

Sharma has been a part of every Indian squad at the T20 World Cup. Kohli made his debut in the 2012 edition, making this his sixth attempt at the title.

Kohli has scored 1,141 runs at an average of 81.50 and strike-rate 131.30 in his 27 games at the tournament. Sharma has scored 963 runs in 39 games at a strike rate of 127.88.

Both players missed all of India’s T20 internationals between the 2022 semifinal loss in Australia and January of this year, leading to some speculation they’d miss out on the 2024 World Cup starting June 1.

That was dispelled by both BCCI secretary Jay Shah and chief selector Ajit Agarkar. Now, there will be big focus on their contributions – in terms of runs and strike-rate.

Sharma only managed 417 runs for Mumbai Indians in the club’s unsuccessful 2024 IPL campaign. Kohli, meanwhile, topped the run charts for Royal Challengers Bengaluru with with 741 runs runs in 15 matches, avering 61.75. But his strike-rate earlier in the season was criticized by some TV broadcast analysts.

In a news conference to confirm the India squad, Agarkar brushed off any concerns regarding Kohli’s strike-rate.

“There’s a difference between IPL and international cricket,” Agarkar said. “You need experience as the pressure of a World Cup game is different. You (only) try to take positives from what is happening in the IPL.”

Kohli opens the batting for his IPL franchise but goes in at No. 3 for India in T20s. It has led to a significant debate over his batting position for the World Cup because it holds the key to India’s XI.

Should Kohli continue to bat at No. 3, Yashasvi Jaiswal will open the innings with Sharma. India will then have to play with only four specialist batters including Suryakumar Yadav, the world’s top-ranked T20 batter.

Allrounder Hardik Pandya and first-choice wicketkeeper-batter Rishabh Pant would slot in next, with bowling allrounders to follow.

If Kohli opens with Sharma, it allows for an extra batter in the middle order and likely makes room for Shivam Dube, who has impressed selectors with his power hitting in the IPL and strike rate of 162.29.

Dube can also bowl useful medium pace if needed, and could provide backup to Pandya.

Pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah will lead a bowling attack that will contain four spinners, including left-arm all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. Wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzendra Chahal complete the line-up.

“I asked for four spinners,” Sharma explained. “Most of our matches will start at 10-11 a.m. (and) we expect all-rounders to do a job for us. It gives us a variety of combinations to explore depending on the opposition.”

India begins its World Cup campaign against Ireland on June 5, then faces fierce rival Pakistan in New York on June 9 in what could be the highlight of the group stage. India will play the U.S. on June 12 and Canada on June 15.

While it is a seemingly straight-forward road for India in the first round, the tension to end a prolonged title drought will grow once it reaches the West Indies for the Super Eight stage.

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Taiwan residents offer views on China, defense, US

As a new president takes office in Taiwan, the island’s residents have mixed views on how well the new administration will handle Taipei’s relationship with Beijing. VOA’s William Yang reports from Taipei. Camera: William Yang.

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Biden, Trump compete for key swing state of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of US states that could determine the outcome of November’s presidential election. VOA Correspondent Scott Stearns looks at what Joe Biden and Donald Trump are doing to win there.

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Tunisia sentences two journalists to one year in prison

TUNIS — A Tunisian court on Wednesday sentenced two journalists to one year in prison on charges of publishing false news that harms public security, a judicial official said, amid growing fears of a crackdown targeting all critical voices. 

Mourad Zghidi and Borhan Bsaiss, both journalists with IFM radio, were detained this month over political comments made on the radio. 

Tunisia has now imprisoned a total of six journalists, including Zghidi and Bsaiss, while dozens of others face judicial prosecution, according to the national journalists syndicate, which is the country’s main union for journalists.  

In May, police arrested 10 people, including journalists, lawyers and officials of civil society groups, in what Amnesty International called a deep crackdown targeting activists and journalists. Human Rights Watch has called on Tunisia to respect free speech and civil liberties. 

“The judge decided to imprison them for a year following social media posts and radio comments that harm public security,” said Mohamed Zitouna, the Tunis court spokesperson. 

Lawyers for Bsaiss and Zghidi were not immediately available for comment. 

During his trial session, Bsaiss said, “I am a program presenter who presents all issues, and what I did was journalistic work.”  

Zghidi also defended himself during the session. 

“I did not make a mistake. …. My work requires analyzing the political and economic situation … and I bear my responsibility,” he said. 

Tunisian journalists gathered near the court on Wednesday, demanding an end to ongoing restrictions against journalists. 

“Tunisia has become an open prison for journalists,” said Zied Dabbar, head of the national journalists syndicate. 

“Threats and restrictions facing journalists in Tunisia are unprecedented. We will move to escalation,” he added, without giving details. 

Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, the country has been considered one of the more open media environments in the Arab world. 

But politicians, journalists and unions say freedom of the press faces a serious threat under the rule of President Kais Saied, who came to power following free elections in 2019. 

Two years later, he shut down the elected parliament and moved to rule by decree. He also assumed authority over the judiciary, a step that the opposition called a coup. 

Saied rejects accusations of authoritarian rule and says his steps aim to end years of chaos and corruption.

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Haley says she will vote for Trump in November despite their disputes

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Nikki Haley said Wednesday that she will be voting for Donald Trump in November’s general election, a notable show of support given their intense and often personal rivalry during the Republican primary campaign.

But Haley also made it clear that she feels Trump has work to do to win over voters who supported her during the course of the primary campaign and continue to cast votes for her in ongoing primary contests.

“I will be voting for Trump,” Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, said during an event at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“Having said that, I stand by what I said in my suspension speech,” Haley added. “Trump would be smart to reach out to the millions of people who voted for me and continue to support me and not assume that they’re just going to be with him. And I genuinely hope he does that.”

The comments in her first public speech since leaving the race are another signal of the Republican Party’s virtually complete consolidation of support behind Trump, even from those who have labeled him a threat in the past.

Haley shuttered her own bid for the Republican nomination two months ago but did not immediately endorse Trump, having accused him of causing chaos and disregarding the importance of U.S. alliances abroad as well as questioning whether Trump, 77, was too old to be president again.

Trump, in turn, repeatedly mocked her with the nickname “Birdbrain,” though he curtailed those attacks after securing enough delegates in March to become the presumptive Republican nominee.

Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Haley’s announcement.

President Joe Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has been working to win over her supporters, whom they view as true swing voters. Biden’s team is quietly organizing a Republicans for Biden group, which will eventually include dedicated staff and focus on the hundreds of thousands of Haley voters in each battleground state, according to people familiar with the plans but not authorized to discuss them publicly.

But Haley made several criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy and handling of the U.S.-Mexico border in her speech Wednesday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank she recently joined as she reemerges in the political realm.

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US Justice Department sues to block Oklahoma immigration law

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA — The U.S. Department of Justice sued Oklahoma on Tuesday, seeking to block a law that aims to impose criminal penalties on those living in the state illegally.

The lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City challenges a law that makes it a state crime — punishable by up to two years in prison — to live in Oklahoma without legal immigration status. Similar laws passed in Texas and Iowa already are facing challenges from the Justice Department.

Oklahoma is among several Republican-led states jockeying to push deeper into immigration enforcement as Republicans and Democrats seize on the issue. Other bills targeting migrants have been passed this year in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

The Justice Department says the Oklahoma statute violates the U.S. Constitution and is asking the court to declare it invalid and bar the state from enforcing it.

“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.”

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called the bill necessary, saying the Biden administration is failing to secure the nation’s borders.

“Not only that, but they stand in the way of states trying to protect their citizens,” Stitt said in a statement.

The federal action was expected, as the Department of Justice warned Oklahoma officials last week the agency would sue unless the state agreed not to enforce the new law.

In response, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond called the DOJ’s preemption argument “dubious at best” and said that while the federal government has broad authority over immigration, it does not have “exclusive power” on the subject.

“Oklahoma is exercising its concurrent and complementary power as a sovereign state to address an ongoing public crisis within its borders through appropriate legislation,” Drummond wrote in a letter to the DOJ. “Put more bluntly, Oklahoma is cleaning up the Biden Administration’s mess through entirely legal means in its own backyard — and will resolutely continue to do so by supplementing federal prohibitions with robust state penalties.”

Texas was allowed to enforce a law similar to Oklahoma’s for only a few confusing hours in March before it was put on hold by a federal appeals court’s three-judge panel. The panel heard arguments from supporters and opponents in April and will next issue a decision on the law’s constitutionality.

The Justice Department filed another lawsuit earlier this month seeking to block an Iowa law that would allow criminal charges to be brought against people who have outstanding deportation orders or who previously have been removed from or denied admission to the United States.

The law in Oklahoma has prompted several large protests at the state Capitol that included immigrants and their families voicing concern that their loved ones will be racially profiled by police.

“We feel attacked,” said Sam Wargin Grimaldo, an immigration attorney who attended a rally last month wearing a shirt that read, “Young, Latino and Proud.”

“People are afraid to step out of their houses if legislation like this is proposed and then passed,” he said.

The Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and the Metro Law Enforcement Agency Leaders issued a joint statement earlier this month saying they weren’t involved in drafting the bill and raised concerns that it would put crime victims at risk because they might fear reporting to law enforcement.

“This law has the potential to destroy the connections and relationships we have built within our local immigrant communities and set us back for many years to come,” they said.

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Yacht docked in US port symbolizes struggle to convert seizures into cash for Ukraine

Everett, Washington/Washington, DC — When a superyacht worth $230 million pulled into the port of Everett, Washington, for repairs last month, it made a big splash in the city of 110,000 residents. 

The 106-meter luxury behemoth known as the Amadea is currently in possession of the U.S. government, which alleges the yacht belongs to sanctioned Russian oligarch and politician Suleyman Kerimov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Looking out over the port, Everett resident Bob Templeton wondered who was paying for the superyacht’s upkeep. “They ought to sell it to somebody and get a lot of money,” he told VOA with a laugh. 

Easier said than done. Templeton’s offhand remark cuts to the core of a dilemma faced by the United States as it attempts to use sanctions to rein in Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

The U.S. government has moved to take ownership of the Amadea through a legal procedure called civil forfeiture. The end goal is to sell the vessel and transfer the proceeds to Ukraine. 

But another Russian businessman, who is not under sanctions, has challenged that move, claiming that he is the Amadea’s true owner. 

As the courts try to sort out the yacht’s ownership, U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill: over half-a-million dollars a month for maintenance. 

And the complex legal battle could drag on for a long time, increasing the costs for the U.S. and delaying any benefit to Ukraine from the yacht’s seizure, according to Stefan Cassella, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and expert in civil forfeiture. 

“Nobody who is a sanctioned oligarch owns anything in his own name,” he said. “You have an entire zoo of third parties who claim they own the property.” 

Kerimov did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment. 

Kleptocapture win 

In May 2022, just months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement in Fiji seized the Amadea at the request of the U.S. government. 

That was a major victory for Task Force Kleptocapture, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice created in the wake of the Russian invasion to enforce sanctions. 

But completing the job has proved more complicated. 

Since the 1980s, civil forfeiture has been the Department of Justice’s go-to tool for targeting drug dealers, the mafia and money laundering operations, according to David Smith, a former DOJ prosecutor who pioneered the practice. 

It allows law enforcement to seize assets without convicting their owner of a crime. All that prosecutors must prove is that the assets were used in a crime, profited from a crime or resulted from criminal activity. 

But when that crime is a sanctions violation, proving the asset is owned by a sanctioned person is critical. 

Lawyers representing the company that owns Amadea have claimed the yacht actually belongs to Eduard Khudainatov, a former CEO of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, who is not subject to sanctions. 

He and his legal team say the seizure is unlawful and based on a “misleading” FBI affidavit. 

“Eduard Khudainatov is, and always has been, the rightful owner of the Amadea. The Biden Administration’s unconstitutional seizure of the vessel was based on demonstrable falsehoods that we will establish in court,” his spokesperson said in a statement to VOA. “The government asserts factual and legal theories that are divorced from forfeiture sanctions and money laundering laws, and unsupported by the cases interpreting those laws. This boondoggle is nothing more than political theater that has cost American taxpayers more than $20 million to date.” 

The U.S. government disagrees, referring to Khudainatov as a “straw owner” of the Amadea. 

According to prosecutors, Khudainatov is “supposedly the beneficial owner of at least eight yachts or yacht projects” — a fleet valued at over $1 billion. They include a yacht that prosecutors state is actually owned by Igor Sechin, the sanctioned incumbent CEO of Rosneft and a Putin ally. 

Journalists have linked another one of the superyachts, the Scheherazade, to Putin himself. In May 2022, it was impounded in Italy. 

While Khudainatov’s lawyers were unable to prevent the Amadea’s transfer to the United States, they are currently fighting forfeiture in a New York court. 

The DOJ states that Kerimov purchased the yacht in 2021, three years after he was added to sanctions list. Prosecutors allege that the oligarch or his proxies routed dollar transactions through U.S. financial institutions to maintain the Amadea, which would constitute a sanctions violation. 

But proving Kerimov’s ownership — and disproving Khudainatov’s claim — is no simple task. 

Assets like superyachts are often owned through a series of proxy owners, offshore companies and trusts. These entities are often registered in jurisdictions chosen for their secrecy. 

Cassella, who has studied the case, says that Khudainatov’s legal team is dragging out proceedings, while the U.S. government is trying to compel him to answer questions and provide documentation that would prove he is not the Amadea’s owner. 

“This is civil forfeiture defense 101 for anybody who’s got an infinite amount of money to pay lawyers to oppose the forfeiture,” Cassella said. 

Expensive process 

While the legal battle goes forward, the U.S. government is paying to keep the Amadea running. 

According to court filings, upkeep of the yacht costs roughly $600,000 a month. Insurance costs another $144,000 monthly, and there are other periodic expenses. 

In a February filing, an official of the U.S. Marshals Service stated that the Amadea was also scheduled to undergo drydocking in March, which appears to have been delayed. 

That procedure, which involves removing a vessel from the water to conduct repair work, was estimated to cost $5.6 million — although the government negotiated not to pay the other monthly costs during that period, the official noted. 

In recent months, however, the U.S. government has taken steps to decrease the cost. 

In February, it petitioned the court to sell the Amadea, citing the excessive costs of maintaining the yacht. Such a sale would effectively convert the yacht into cash, but not settle the ownership question. 

In a filing opposing the sale, Khudainatov’s legal team stated that he had consistently offered to cover the cost of maintaining the Amadea. 

On May 17, the U.S. government also submitted a motion to reject Khudainatov’s ownership claim, stating that he lacks standing to contest forfeiture. 

If a judge agrees, that could allow the forfeiture to proceed. 

Controversial, challenging strategy 

While confiscating the assets of Russian oligarchs and top officials may not face fierce opposition from most Americans, civil forfeiture is controversial in the United States. 

Advocacy organizations, both liberal and conservative, have criticized the practice, arguing that it allows law enforcement to seize private property without convicting the owner of a crime. 

Smith, the former DOJ prosecutor, says the burden falls hardest on low-income Americans who struggle to pay for a lawyer. 

This was one of the reasons why eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2022 voted against a bill calling for the Biden administration to seize sanctioned Russians’ assets to fund Ukraine. 

Smith believes applying civil forfeiture to oligarchs is “arbitrary” and he is unsure whether the U.S. will be able to seize enough assets from oligarchs to make a meaningful difference for Ukraine. 

“I would rather spend the money [subsidizing forfeiture investigations and proceedings] on other things than trying to forfeit these yachts,” he said. “And who knows how many will ultimately be forfeited.” 

That concern is not unfounded. The Kleptocapture Task Force is working to forfeit or restrain around $700 million, but, so far, the United States has been able to transfer forfeited assets to Ukraine in only a handful of cases. 

In May 2023, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland authorized sending $5.4 million to Ukraine that the U.S. had seized from sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev. It represented the first such transfer of forfeited funds to Ukraine. 

Later that year, the U.S. transferred over a million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine after seizing them en route from Iran to Yemen.

In February 2024, the U.S. government, after breaking up a scheme to illegally procure military-grade technology for Russia, transferred $500,000 in forfeited Russian funds to Estonia to provide aid to Ukraine. 

In April, the U.S. transferred another shipment of weapons seized from Iran to Ukraine.

Those transfers put funds and ammunition in the hands of the Ukrainian government, but they were also of a significantly lower value than the Amadea. 

Bigger cases involving oligarch assets may prove more difficult. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it took 10 years to resolve some of these cases,” said former prosecutor Cassella. 

Natasha Mozgovaya reported from Everett, Washington. Matthew Kupfer and Oleksii Kovalenko reported from Washington, D.C.

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Biden to cancel student loans for 160,000 more borrowers

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is canceling student loans for 160,000 more borrowers through a combination of existing programs. 

The U.S. Education Department announced the latest round of cancellations on Wednesday, saying it will erase $7.7 billion in federal student loans. With the latest action, the administration said it has canceled $167 billion in student debt for nearly 5 million Americans through several programs. 

“From day one of my administration, I promised to fight to ensure higher education is a ticket to the middle class, not a barrier to opportunity,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I will never stop working to cancel student debt — no matter how many times Republican-elected officials try to stop us.” 

The latest relief will go to borrowers in three categories who hit certain milestones that make them eligible for cancellation. It will go to 54,000 borrowers who are enrolled in Biden’s new income-driven repayment plan, along with 39,000 enrolled in earlier income-driven plans, and about 67,000 who are eligible through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. 

Biden’s new payment plan, known as the SAVE Plan, offers a faster path to forgiveness than earlier versions. More people are now becoming eligible for loan cancellation as they hit 10 years of payments, a new finish line that’s a decade sooner than what borrowers faced in the past. 

The cancellation is moving forward even as Biden’s SAVE Plan faces legal challenges from Republican-led states. A group of 11 states led by Kansas sued to block the plan in March, followed by seven more led by Missouri in April. In two federal lawsuits, the states say Biden needed to go through Congress for his overhaul of federal repayment plans. 

A separate action by the Biden administration aimed to correct previous mistakes that delayed cancellation for some borrowers enrolled in other repayment plans and through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives loans for people who make 10 years of payments while working in public service jobs. 

The Biden administration has been announcing new batches of forgiveness each month as more people qualify under those three categories. 

According to the Education Department, one in 10 federal student loan borrowers has now been approved for some form of loan relief. 

“One out of every 10 federal student loan borrowers approved for debt relief means one out of every 10 borrowers now has financial breathing room and a burden lifted,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. 

The Biden administration has continued canceling loans through existing avenues while it also pushes for a new, one-time cancellation that would provide relief to more than 30 million borrowers in five categories. 

Biden’s new plan aims to help borrowers with large sums of unpaid interest, those with older loans, those who attended low-value college programs, and those who face other hardships preventing them from repaying student loans. It would also cancel loans for people who are eligible through other programs but haven’t applied. 

The proposal is going through a lengthy rulemaking process, but the administration said it will accelerate certain provisions, with plans to start waiving unpaid interest for millions of borrowers starting this fall. 

Conservative opponents have threatened to challenge that plan, too, calling it an unfair bonus for wealthy college graduates at the expense of taxpayers who didn’t attend college or already repaid their loans. 

The Supreme Court rejected Biden’s earlier attempt at one-time cancellation, saying it overstepped the president’s authority. The new plan is being made with a different legal justification. 

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