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Mexico Vows to Identify Thousands of Remains, ‘Worst Legacy’ of Violence

Mexico’s government vowed on Monday to identify thousands of human remains that have accumulated in morgues and mass graves during more than a decade of gang violence and stirred anger among bereaved families.

The government said it would initially commit 400 million pesos ($21 million) to work through the backlog, including updating forensic databases, establishing five new forensic centers, bringing in experts and using new technologies.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in gang-fueled violence, and over 40,000 have disappeared since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the armed forces to tackle Mexico’s powerful drug cartels at the end of 2006.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who took office in December, has vowed to end the lawlessness and bring justice for the families, calling previous governments the violators “par excellence” of human rights in the country.

Still, 2019 is on track to be the most violent year on record, and protesters shouted at the president during a news conference in which the plans were unveiled.

“There will be all the support and all the funds necessary to address this outcry,” Lopez Obrador said at the event in his presidential office. “This is the worst legacy left to us by past governments.”

Thousands of bodies and remains have piled up from the ad hoc burials given victims of the violence, raising public ire over chronic impunity in Mexico.

Criminal gangs often bury the bodies of rivals or victims in clandestine graves. Some exhumed bodies appear to have been doused in acid or dismembered before burial.

“We must find a way forward … that guarantees us dignified treatment and identification of the bodies,” said Alejandro Encinas, the deputy interior minister responsible for human rights.

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said that between January 2007 and September 2016, Mexican prosecutors reported the discovery of 855 clandestine graves, from which 1,548 bodies and 35,958 additional body parts were exhumed.

Encinas acknowledged that many bodies and body parts across the country had yet to undergo autopsies. Remains often lie in mass graves without ever being identified by relatives or officials. A shortage of experts has exacerbated the problem.

“This has led to a profound forensic crisis that we now need to face,” Encinas said.

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Middle East Survey Sees Patchy Progress in Views on Women’s and LGBT Rights

More men than women in Iraq say they have been sexually harassed, while only 6% of Lebanese people think being gay is acceptable, according to a major survey of public opinion in the Middle East published on Monday.

The wide-ranging study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University, found although support for women’s rights and for female leaders was growing, many people still felt men should have the final say in family matters.

“Opinions regarding women’s rights and their roles in society are progressing unevenly in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Aseel Alayli of Arab Barometer, the research network that conducted the survey. “There is little agreement that women should play equal roles in public or private life.”

Arab Barometer surveyed more than 25,000 people across 10 countries and the Palestinian territories for the study, which was commissioned by BBC News Arabic.

Its findings have revealed the complex and often conflicting views held by people in the region on LGBT+ and women’s rights.

Attitudes are shifting on certain topics, the research showed, with Jordanians and Moroccans more supportive of women gaining a university education than they were in 2006.

Several Gulf governments including Saudi Arabia refused “full and fair access” to the survey, according to BBC Arabic News.

The conservative kingdom has long been a focus for women’s rights in the region and was applauded for lifting the world’s last ban on women driving in 2018.

But optimism about women’s rights has been tempered by the detention of prominent Saudi female activists who have campaigned to end a guardianship system whereby women must seek permission from a male relative to work and travel.

LGBT+ Rights

Acceptance of being gay is low across the Middle East, the study found, with Algeria, where 26% of people deem it acceptable to be gay, the most tolerant country.

In Jordan, so-called honor killings – where relatives kill a family member, typically a woman, who is seen as having dishonored the family – were deemed more acceptable than homosexuality, according to the study.

“Many people in the Middle East believe one’s sexuality can be changed, and would wish to see gay people change accordingly,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT+ Rights for Human Rights Watch.

Religious and political leaders should do more to speak out in support of LGBT+ rights, Ghoshal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that LGBT+ activists faced a particularly difficult task building movements in the region.

LGBT+ relationships are illegal across most of the Middle East and North Africa, and gay people often risk fines, jail and even the possibility of death, according to Human Rights Watch.

A 2018 poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen among the 10 most dangerous countries for women.

“People don’t accept it (LGBT+) but they might acknowledge it … It’s very complex,” said a gay Qatari man, 31, who asked not to be named. “Maybe attitudes are shifting but the general consensus is people don’t accept it as something that should be outward.”

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US Public Might Not Be Told About Foreign Efforts to Alter Next Election

Senior U.S. officials say they are already busy buttressing the nation’s defenses against foreign interference for the 2020 presidential election. Only they admit the public may be kept in the dark about attacks and intrusions.

Intelligence and election security officials have warned repeatedly that Russia, among other state and nonstate actors, remains intent on disrupting the upcoming elections and that the Kremlin may even have gone easy on the U.S. during the 2016 midterm elections, seeing the ability to impact the 2020 presidential race as the bigger prize.

At the same time, election and security officials have come under increased scrutiny for failing to reveal the size and scope of Russia’s efforts to hack into voter databases and other critical systems.

In April, special counsel Robert Mueller released his report into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as allegations of obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.

Florida representatives

In May, two U.S. representatives from Florida, Republican Michael Waltz and Democrat Stephanie Murphy, wrote to the FBI and Justice Department, demanding a classified briefing on the extent of Russia’s exploits after the Mueller report indicated Moscow managed to infiltrate critical systems in at least one county during the 2016 presidential election.

“Florida voters have the right to know the extent to which foreign actors may have breached our state’s election security systems, and what the federal government is doing to prevent it from happening again,” Murphy said in a statement.

Senior Trump administration officials, however, cautioned Monday they may decide to keep information like that from the public.

“There are hard choices to be made,” one official told reporters while briefing them on efforts to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference.

“The ultimate question is going to be whether the federal or national interests in doing so — publicly disclosing it — outweigh any counter veiling consideration,” the official added.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials said the ability to disclose information can often be limited by the need to protect the sources and methods that discovered the attacks or intrusions in the first place.

Impact on victims

There are also concerns about the impact on the victims.

“Victims who work with the FBI do so because they trust that we’ll protect and handle their information appropriately,” a senior law enforcement official said. “For example, the majority of technical information that we were able to give election officials during the 2016 time frame was initiated from this type of trusted outreach.”

In cases involving foreign influence campaigns, the decision to make them public can be even more difficult.

“Disclosing a foreign influence operation might do more harm than good because it might draw more attention to an operation that would otherwise go unnoticed,” the senior administration official said.

A senior intelligence official agreed that in some cases, the less said, the better.

“It’s less about highlighting for the public that there might be a problem,” the official said. “We actually want to stop it from happening, whether we do that through cyber channels or diplomatic channels or other operations.”

2020 campaign

With the 2020 presidential campaign getting under way, intelligence agencies, along with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, have set about briefing the candidates and making them aware of the resources available should their campaign come under attack.

There are also increased efforts to reach out to U.S. state and local officials to make sure they have the information they need to protect their voter databases and election systems from attacks.

Officials said there have even been ongoing discussions with the private sector, both those that provide voting machines and other election infrastructure, as well as with social media companies.

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US Treasury Inspector to Look Into Delay of New Tubman $20 Bill

The U.S. Treasury inspector general says he will look into why the Trump administration decided to scrap plans to put escaped slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the move last month, saying the change is because of “counterfeiting issues.”

But Democratic Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer said he is not satisfied with Mnuchin’s vague explanation, saying it lacked credibility.

He asked the Treasury’s watchdog to investigate the circumstances “including any involvement by the White House.”

“There are no women, there are no people of color on our paper currency today even though they make up a significant majority of our population,” Schumer said.

The redesigned bill was to have entered circulation next year, but Mnuchin said it will be put off until 2028. It is also unclear whether Tubman will still be on the new bill when it is finally rolled out.

He said the “imagery feature” (who will appear on the bill) will not be a matter until long after he and U.S. President Donald Trump are out of office.

The $20 bill currently features a picture of 19th century U.S. President Andrew Jackson. Jackson owned slaves and forced Native Americans out of their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. leading to the deaths of thousands of Indians. 

The move to replace Jackson, preferably with a historically-important woman, was announced during the Obama administration. 

Tubman was chosen from an online poll of Americans.

President Trump is said to be an admirer of Andrew Jackson — not because of Jackson’s racism — but because Trump regards him as a populist and anti-establishment. 

Trump called replacing Jackson with Tubman “pure political correctness” and proposed putting Tubman on the $2 bill, which is rarely printed. 

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland as a young woman and returned to the southern U.S. to help other slaves escape and to work as a union government spy during the Civil War.

She was thought to be in her early 90s when she died in 1913.

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American Sentenced to 12 Years in Vietnamese Prison

A U.S. citizen has been sentenced to 12 years in a Vietnamese prison for  “attempting to overthrow the state.”

Michael Phuong Minh Nguyen, 55, pleaded guilty to wanting to incite protests in Vietnam but denied encouraging people to attack government offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City  

He will be deported to the U.S. after he finishes his sentence, his lawyer said. Nguyen Van Mieng, told Reuters news service that Nguyen “admitted guilt at the trial and asked the jury to reduce his sentence so that he could soon reunite with his family.”

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement to Reuters that it is “disappointed” by the verdict. “We will continue to raise our concerns regarding Mr. Nguyen’s case, and his welfare, at all appropriate levels,” an embassy spokeswoman said. 

Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam but has lived in the U.S. since he was child, was arrested last year during a visit to his birthplace. 

Two Vietnamese men who were arrested along with Nguyen were sentenced to eight and 10 years in prison for related charges.

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US Moves Hundreds of Children from Suspect Detention Facility

Several hundred children, held in a U.S. border detention facility in Texas after entering the country without authorization, will be sheltered elsewhere, following a media report last week that described unsanitary living conditions and inadequate food and medical treatment at the facility.

The Associated Press reported Monday that authorities moved “more than 300 children” out of a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, following a June 20 story by the news agency.

Lawyers who visited the remote station said that older children were caring for other children, sanitation conditions were substandard, and children were sick, living in soiled clothes and being given rotten food,

FILE – Attorney General Jeff Sessions is shown during a news conference in San Diego near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, May 7, 2018.

It was under the Trump administration, however, that then-Attorney General Jeff Session announced a blanket zero tolerance policy to detain all migrants who crossed the border without authorization.

That policy, though short-lived, led to thousands of adults and children being held in separate facilities. The public backlash and lawsuits led the administration to rescind the policy. 

In a separate interview Sunday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that the conditions in the facilities as reported by AP were unacceptable, he shifted the blame to Democrats in Congress.

Meanwhile, authorities said Monday that three children and one adult found dead in South Texas near the border with Mexico probably died of dehydration and heat exposure after crossing the Rio Grande into this country, AP reported.

An increase in the detention of families with young children and children traveling without guardians has left U.S.officials scrambling to meet the shelter demands on the border.

At one point in recent months, CBP solicited bids to purchase thousands of baby bottles and diapers for detainees at the border.

From Oct. 1, 2018 – the start of the fiscal year – through May 31, CBP has detained 332,981 families and 56,278 unaccompanied children at the border, according to agency data.

The agency is under scrutiny over several deaths of children in its custody since late last year.

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India Grapples with Encephalitis Epidemic in One of Its Poorest Regions

At least 152 children have died in an encephalitis outbreak during the month of June in India’s eastern state of Bihar, according to local health authorities. Following a petition, India’s supreme court ordered an investigation into the epidemic.

Acute encephalitis syndrome, sometimes referred to as ‘brain fever’, has claimed lives in 20 of Bihar’s 38 districts.  In particular, the disease has gripped the Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, reaching epidemic proportions in a region already stricken with poverty and poor child health.

In 2014, an outbreak of encephalitis killed 350 children in Muzaffarpur.  

A petition filed to India’s supreme court sought to end the current epidemic, accusing local and regional governments of being negligent in their response.

“[Encephalitis] is completely curable and lives of young children are being lost due to the inaction of state machinery,” the petition read.

“Most of the deaths are occurring due to lack of medical facilities in the area of outbreak,” it continued.

In response to the petition, Indian supreme court justice Sanjiv Khanna said “We issue notice to the Bihar government seeking a detailed response.”

State and national officials must respond within seven days on health conditions, according to India’s top court.

India’s health ministry affirmed its earlier promise to open a children’s ward in the district and monitor the epidemic, as state health official face sharp criticism for what has been seen as indifference and negligent behavior.

India’s health minister Harsh Varadhan insisted that the Indian government was providing “all possible support” to combat the epidemic.  

Since June 1, more than 700 cases of the disease have been recorded, though there are signs that the disease has been slowing, with no new deaths reported on Monday.


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New US Sanctions Target Iran’s Supreme Leader

U.S. President Donald Trump imposed what he described as “hard-hitting” new financial sanctions on Iran on Monday, specifically targeting the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump signed an executive order he said would curb access that Khamenei and the country have to world financial markets. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the action would “literally” lock up “tens and tens of billions of dollars” of Iranian assets.

The U.S. leader called his order a “strong and proportionate” American response to Tehran’s shoot-down last week of an unmanned U.S. drone, which Washington says occurred in international airspace near the Strait of Hormuz and Iran claims occurred over its airspace.

Drone incident

Trump at the last minute last Thursday rejected a military response to the downing of the drone upon learning that about 150 Iranians would be killed in a U.S. attack. In announcing the new sanctions, he said “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future. But we’ll give it a chance.”

Trump said he imposed the sanctions because of a series of “belligerent acts” carried out by Iran, which U.S. officials say include Iran’s targeting of Norwegian and Japanese ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz with mine explosions days before the attack on the drone.

The executive order is aimed at pushing Tehran back to one-on-one talks with the U.S. over its nuclear weapons program after Trump last year withdrew from the 2015 international pact restraining Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump called the international deal negotiated by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, “a disaster.”

“We’d love to be able to negotiate a deal,” Trump said.

But he declared, “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon,” adding, “They sponsor terrorism like no one’s seen before.”

He said, “I look forward to the day when sanctions can be lifted and Iran can be a peace-loving nation. The people of Iran are great people.”

‘Highly effective’

Mnuchin said earlier sanctions imposed when Trump pulled out of the international agreement have been “highly effective in locking up the Iranian economy. We follow the money and it’s highly effective.”

“Locking up the money worked last time and they’ll work this time,” Mnuchin said. The Treasury chief said the U.S. could target Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of Tehran’s best known figures on the world stage, with sanctions in the coming days.

He said some of the sanctions Trump imposed Monday had been “in the works” before the drone was shot down, and some were being imposed because of the attack on the drone.

The Treasury Department headed by Mnuchin said that in addition to Khamenei, the U.S. sanctions also targeted eight senior commanders in the Iranian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It said that any foreign financial institution that engages in a “significant financial transaction” with the Iranians targeted by the sanctions could be cut off from U.S. financial deals.

Coalition to counter Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the new sanctions as “significant” as he left Washington on Sunday for a trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to continue the Trump administration’s effort to build a coalition of allies to counter Iran.  Pompeo met Monday with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“The world should know,” Pompeo said, “that we will continue to make sure it’s understood that this effort that we’ve engaged in to deny Iran the resources to foment terror, to build out their nuclear weapon system, to build out their missile program, we are going to deny them the resources they need to do that thereby keeping American interests and American people safe all around the world.”

Iran has defended its missile work as legal and necessary for its defense. Tehran has sought support from the remaining signatories to the 2015 agreement to provide the economic relief it wants, especially with its key oil exports as the U.S. has tightened sanctions in an attempt to cut off Iranian oil shipments.

Trump said in a series of tweets Saturday about the sanctions that he looks forward to the day when “sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous national again — The sooner the better!”

He also said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press that he is “not looking for war” with Iran and is willing to negotiate with its leaders without preconditions.


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Local Cambodian Patrols Seek to End Illegal Logging

According to Forest News, Cambodia loses about 208,000 hectares of forest every year from logging. Now some local residents who rely on the forest to make their living are fighting back and asking for help.  VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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