News, December 6th

BBC investigating how late Princess of Wales granted interview 25 years ago !

When it comes to exhuming old corpses, nobody can beat the Brits. Consider this: a quarter of a century ago, a little-known BBC journalist scooped an interview with a certain princess who was going through a bad marriage. In the interview, she accused her husband, Queen’s eldest son, of cheating her with another woman. “We’re three in a marriage,” she famously said fluttering her sad eyelashes. It created a sensation not because her husband’s affair had been a secret but because for the first time the princess had disclosed this on national television. The royal couple were soon formally divorced. Twenty-five years on, the princess is long dead, the prince is happily married to the woman for whom he had betrayed his wife, the journalist has mostly been forgotten after a brief international fame. It should have been the end of the story.

But Brits being Brits, they suddenly want to know how the interview came about; how an obscure journalist managed to get it when his more famous peers struggled to get a hearing. By the way, in case you haven’t already guessed it, the princess was late Diana, her treacherous husband Prince Charles, and the journalist Martin Bashir. The interview was telecast on Nov 20, 1995 and was watched by 23 million people.

Conspiracy theories are swirling around with Bashir facing accusations of using forged documents to con Diana into speaking to him, and the BBC under fire for allegedly covering up his tracks. The chorus is led by Diana’s brother Charles Spencer who says Bashir played on his sister’s vulnerable state of mind at the time to obtain the interview. He is said to have a mockedup bank statement, purporting to show that members of the royal household, in cahoots with the media, were selling stories to newspapers in order to discredit her.

Bashir was cleared of wrongdoing after an internal investigation. But under pressure, BBC has ordered a fresh inquiry amid threats from some MPs to launch their own investigation. Phew!

Tired of binging on Netflix and yet wary about going to cinema for fear of catching the virus? Now help is at hand in the form of a new concept in movie-watching fit for an age of social-distancing. Called the “vertical movie theatre”, it’s designed to give every member of the audience complete privacy ensuring that they stay in their own bubble. Its inventor, Pierre Chican, a French architect. Chican claims it will “revolutionise the way we watch films”. Instead of standard rows of seats, it has separate booths placed at different slopes – giving everyone an unobstructed view while ensuring social-distancing. The slopes have been designed in a manner that nobody will have to crane their neck to have a clear way.

“Cinema layouts haven’t changed in decades. We wanted to provide a more intimate experience, bring people closer to the screen. To do that, we have separated the room into customisable pods and increased the angle of the slope from 25 degrees to more than 50,” says Chican.

It has been in the works long before the pandemic struck but today seems to be just the right thing for our times. For starters, it is to be rolled out at the purpose-built Oma Cinema in Paris and gradually expanded. There are also plans to take it to India. Look out for it.

Next time, before ordering a black coffee, make sure that there is no person of colour around lest you should end up “hurting” them. Because apparently, some think it’s racist to call a “black coffee” a “black coffee”, prompting at least one senior member of the black community to speak out against such excessive sensitivities.

Andrew George, head of Britain’s National Black Police Association has called it political correctness gone mad and saidit was overshadowing “wider issues” that affected everyday lives of blacks and other minorities. Of course, people needed to be civil and sensitive to other people’s feelings but “not being able to call a black coffee a black coffee” was stretching it.

“It kind of takes away from the wider issues on things that are impacting on black and minority ethnic communities every day.”In the current climate, it takes courage to tell the truth. Thumbs up, Mr George.

And, lastly, new research has found that husbands get a “psychological kick” if a pay rise widens the gap between their earnings and those of their lower-paid wives. However, women get no such thrill if it happens the other way round.

France adds 12,923 COVID-19 cases, 216 deaths

France registered 12,923 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, taking its national count to 2,281,475, data from the country’s health authorities showed.

The daily figure was higher than Friday’s 11,221, data showed.

Meanwhile, 216 more deaths were reported across the country, bringing the overall death toll to 54,981. The country also registered 8,589 new hospitalizations, it showed.

France is planning a three-stage vaccination campaign that will initially target 1 million elder people in nursing homes and their staff early next year.

Starting from February, the government aims to inoculate 14 million people with age-related risk factors or chronic diseases. A broader vaccination of the general public is scheduled for next spring.

Hell week bears down on Congress

Washington could sew up a massive government funding deal, finally respond to the coronavirus surge and clinch a must-pass defense bill. Or it could all fall apart this week.

Congress is entering the decisive days of the lame duck with a huge to-do list and very little time as President Donald Trump mostly focuses on his flailing legal and political attempts to overturn the election. The coming days will require bicameral, bipartisan coordination and some buy-in from the outgoing White House to avoid a complete debacle.

The government needs to be funded by Dec. 11, and congressional leaders have yet to strike either a spending agreement or a coronavirus deal. Congress is also hurtling toward a confrontation with President Donald Trump on renaming confederate bases and tech company protections on the defense bill, with Trump threatening to veto the legislation.

Perhaps most urgent as the United States racks up roughly 200,000 cases and 2,000 coronavirus deaths a day — the country registered a million new cases in the first five days of December — is some new response to the disease’s devastating health and economic effects. Bipartisan negotiators worked throughout the weekend to finalize $908 billion legislation based on their rough framework from last week, with hopes of introducing bill text early this week. Congress has not approved a major aid package since April.

“We have a lot of work to do. And just a few days to do it,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “It really is a superhuman effort on our part to get this together in time to help the American people as quickly as possible.”

But there are questions over whether congressional leaders will accept it given disagreements over how much to spend, where to spend it and whether to offer businesses new legal protections. Some sources were doubtful this weekend that the furious round of dealmaking would create a new law despite optimistic words from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats say this bill is the starting point for negotiations, McConnell has been noncommittal and President Donald Trump is always a question mark. Proponents of the bipartisan framework say their effort is the only game in town.

“President Trump has indicated that he will sign a $908 billion package. There’s only one $908 billion package out there, and it’s ours,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) on “Fox News Sunday” of the bill’s prospects with McConnell and Trump. “The pain of the American people is driving this, and I’m optimistic both of those leaders will come on board.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has helped lead the negotiations, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “a deal that must come together. We don’t have a choice now.” He argued spending $908 billion now will have a more important impact than waiting to do something larger until President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.

Still, disagreements persist over aid to local governments, a must-have item for Democrats that divides Republicans, and a liability shield for businesses that McConnell has called his red line but is something Democrats loath. Failure to cut a deal would hamstring Biden during his first days in office as the health and economic calamities worsen absent relief.

If Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement, it would likely have to be included in the year-end spending bill. If the larger negotiations fail, it’s also possible a handful of expiring provisions could be tucked into the must-pass spending package, like extending unemployment funding and an eviction moratorium. But transit agencies, airlines, unemployed Americans and cash-strapped states could be left out of a small ball agreement like that.

And even funding the government has become a question mark. Congress now needs to pass a short-term spending bill to give negotiators more time past the Friday deadline, in part because it can take the Senate several days to pass a spending bill if any individual senator fights swift passage.

The Senate is targeting roughly Dec. 18 as its adjournment date, and McConnell is still looking to confirm nominees this week. The omnibus negotiations that would fund the government through September are still not finished and could collapse — and only produce a stopgap bill into the early days of Biden’s presidency.

Even the fate of the ever-popular National Defense Authorization Act looks rocky. On Tuesday, the House plans to pass the final version of the NDAA, which Trump opposes because it doesn’t repeal Section 230, or protections for tech companies, but does rename bases named for Confederate leaders. Some Republicans supportive of Trump’s effort on Section 230 say it simply can’t go in the defense bill and are ignoring his demands to jam it in the defense legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has predicted the chamber has the votes to override the president’s veto, though such a scenario is not ideal for Republicans. Congress has not overridden any of Trump’s vetoes during his presidency, but Cassidy said Sunday his “inclination would be to always vote for the troops and to vote for our national security.”

Indeed, Trump could lose this one if he doesn’t relent.

“I hesitate to speculate about potential vetoes or any of that, but I would think it will get a strong vote coming out of the Senate. And I hope it would be something he could sign,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune said on Thursday.

Mexican president wants to restrict US agents in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has tossed another hot potato to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden with a proposal that would restrict U.S. agents in Mexico and remove their diplomatic immunity.

The proposal submitted quietly this week by López Obrador would require Drug Enforcement Administration agents to hand over all information they collect to the Mexican government, and require any Mexican officials they contact to submit a full report to Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department.

“The proposal is that foreign agents will not have any immunity,” according to a summary of the president’s proposal to the Mexican Senate published Friday. In most countries, the chief DEA agent in the country often has full diplomatic immunity and other agents have some form of limited or technical immunity.

“The proposal requires that foreign agents give Mexican authorities the information they gather,” according the proposed changes.

Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, said of the handover of all information, “That is not going to happen.”

“Sadly, there is endemic corruption within the (Mexican) government. It’s going to be leaked, it’s going to compromise agents, it’s going to compromise informants,” Vigil said.

The history of leaks is well documented. In 2017, the commander of a Mexican police intelligence-sharing unit that received DEA information was charged with passing the DEA data to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel in exchange for millions of dollars.

The proposed changes also specify that any Mexican public servant — state, federal or local — who has as much as a phone call or text message from a U.S. agent would be required “to deliver a written report to the Foreign Relations Department and the Public Safety Department within three days.”

“It’s just going to make a burdensome system,” Vigil said, adding, “It is going to hinder bilateral operations, it is going to hinder bilateral exchange of information. This is going to be much more detrimental to Mexico than to the United States.”

“Ninety percent of the information sharing goes from the DEA to Mexico, rather from Mexico to the US. The vast majority of counter-drug successes in Mexico comes from DEA information,” he said.

The proposal appears to reflect Mexico’s anger about the arrest of former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles in October.

Under the pressure of Mexico’s implicit threats to restrict or expel U.S. agents, U.S. prosecutors folded, dropping their case so Cienfuegos could be returned to Mexico and investigated — though he has not so far been charged —under Mexican law.

Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme told a judge at the time, “The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case.”

But despite that victory, this week’s proposed changes indicate Mexico isn’t willing to let the matter rest.

Cienfuegos, a general who led Mexico’s army department for six years under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican Cabinet official arrested since top security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.

Cienfuegos was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.

Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.

The Mexican attorney general’s office has pledged to look at the evidence, but Cienfuegos was immediately released upon his arrival back in Mexico. Given the Army’s enormous political and social influence in Mexico, few expect him ever to be convicted there.

The Mexican government was angry it had not been informed of the investigation into Cienfuegos. But Vigil said that “had we notified them, Cienfuegos would have known within five minutes that there was a U.S. indictment against him.”

López Obrador’s administration has had surprisingly warm and cordial relations with President Donald Trump, but has not yet contacted Biden to congratulate him on his election victory.

López Obrador — who himself spent years disputing two earlier presidential losses — has said he wants to wait until “the electoral process” in the United States is finished.

In November, Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard raised eyebrows in the U.S. when he said that “whoever is culpable according to our laws will be tried, judged and if applicable sentenced in Mexico, and not in other countries.” Mexican officials later said that would not affect extraditions.

Over 300 detained in Belarus during protests against leader

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — More than 300 people were detained in the Belarusian capital on Sunday, where crowds of people took to the streets for the 18th consecutive weekend, demanding the ouster of the country’s authoritarian leader who won a sixth term in office in an election widely seen as rigged.

Thousands of people Sunday took part in dozens of small rallies scattered all over Minsk, the Belarusian capital — a new tactic the opposition employed instead of one large gathering to make it harder for the security forces to target the protesters.

“We believe! We can! We will win!” the demonstrators chanted. Several people wore Santa Claus costumes and masks depicting President Alexander Lukashenko. “Give Belarusians a gift: go away,” a banner they carried read.

Police in Minsk said they detained more than 300 people. The Viasna human rights group released the names of 215 people detained in Minsk and other cities, where rallies also took place.

Mass protests have rocked Belarus, a former Soviet republic in eastern Europe, since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over his widely popular opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She and her supporters refused to recognize the result, saying the vote was riddled with fraud.

Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies.

On Sunday, water cannons, armored vehicles and military trucks were seen in the center of Minsk. Several subway stations were closed and internet access was restricted.

At least four journalists have been detained in Minsk and the western city of Grodno, according the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Nina Bahinskaya, a 73-year-old protester famous for her resilience, was also among those detained, according to Viasna.

The continued crackdown on the protests elicited international outrage. Earlier this year, the European Union imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several dozen officials over their role in the security crackdown launched after the contested election.

On Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that the situation with human rights in Belarus is getting worse. Bachelet pointed to reports of mass arrests, the beating of detainees and the use of force in dispersing peaceful demonstrations.

“It is urgent that the government of Belarus puts an end to ongoing human rights violations,” Bachelet said, urging Belarusian authorities to release those who have been unlawfully detained during protests, stop clamping down on the demonstrations and investigate “all allegations of torture and other human rights violations, including the deaths of at least four persons in the context of the protests.”

Protesters in the meantime say they aren’t discouraged by the crackdown.

“The protest will not fade until Lukashenko leaves,” Maksim Borovets, one of those rallying in Minsk on Sunday, told The Associated Press. “The intensified repressions did not stop (it). They merely changed the forms of the fight.”

Saudi, Israeli officials spar at regional conference

MANAMA: An influential Saudi prince launched a bitter attack on Israel at a regional conference Sunday, drawing retorts from the Jewish state’s foreign minister who addressed the gathering virtually.

The row erupted months after the UAE and Bahrain broke decades of Arab consensus by normalising ties with Israel, a move condemned as a “stab in the back” by Palestinians.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a Saudi former intelligence chief who is said to be close to the country’s top leadership, reiterated strong support for the Palestinian cause in a fiery presentation to the Manama Dialogue security forum.

In unusually blunt language, he accused Israel of depicting itself as a “small, existentially threatened country, surrounded by bloodthirsty killers who want to eradicate her from existence”.

“And yet they profess that they want to be friends with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

He described the Jewish state as a “Western colonising power” and outlined a history of forcible eviction of Palestinians and destroyed villages.

Palestinians were held “in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice,” he said.

He said the Israeli authorities are “demolishing homes as they wish, and they assassinate whomever they want.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi addressed the meeting by videoconference shortly afterwards, expressing his “regret” over the comments, which come after years of covertly warming relations between the two Mideast powers.

“The false accusations of the Saudi representative at the Manama Conference do not reflect the facts or the spirit & changes the region is undergoing,” he said in a tweet.

“I rejected his remarks & emphasised that the ‘blame game’ era is over. We are at the dawn of a new era. An era of peace.”

Prince Turki, who said his comments reflected his personal view, voiced scepticism over the US-brokered Abraham Accords, to which Washington has been urging the kingdom to sign up.

“You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers. The Abraham Accords are not divine writ,” he said.

The agreements between the two Gulf states and Israel have undermined the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which maintained that Arab states would not establish relations with the Jewish state until it made peace with the Palestinians — a position Riyadh has reiterated in recent months.

However, Ashkenazi said the agreements were an opportunity for the Palestinians and offer a “window to solve this conflict”.

“The Abraham accords do not come at the expense of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite, they are an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said, urging them to return to peace talks which were frozen in 2014.

Despite Prince Turki’s blunt rhetoric, mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf nations closer, and Riyadh itself has quietly been building relations with the Jewish state for several years.

Reports last month that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held secret talks in Saudi Arabia fuelled speculation that a normalisation accord with the Gulf’s top power could be in the making.

Riyadh, however, denied that the meeting had occurred.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told AFP on Saturday that the kingdom’s position remained resolute.

“We’ve been quite clear that in order for us to proceed with normalisation we will need to see a settlement of the Palestinian dispute and the formation of a viable state of Palestine along the lines envisioned in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative,” he said in an interview in Manama.

Asked whether that effectively ruled out the establishment of ties with Israel any time soon, he said he was “optimistic that there is a path towards a resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis”. — AFP

Venezuelan voting begins in disputed assembly elections amid boycotts from opposition

Polling places in Venezuela open Sunday to elect members of the National Assembly in a vote championed by President Nicolás Maduro but rejected as a fraud by the nation’s most influential opposition politicians.

Maduro seeks to pack the assembly with members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, capturing the last government institution out of his reach. Critics say doing so will smother the last remnants of democracy in Venezuela.

An opposition coalition led by U.S.-backed politician Juan Guaidó is boycotting the vote.

The Supreme Court — loyal to Maduro — this year appointed a new elections commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led congress, as the law requires. The court also took over three leading opposition parties, appointing new leaders the opposition accuses of conspiring to support Maduro.

Guaidó’s opposition movement is holding a referendum over several days after the election. It will ask Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro’s rule and hold new presidential elections.

It’s unclear whether either side’s vote will draw the masses as neither Maduro nor Guaidó are popular among Venezuelans as the nation’s economic and political crisis deepens despite its vast oil reserves.

The South American nation is caught in a deepening political and economic crisis, despite holding the world’s largest oil reserves.

More than 5 million people have fled the country in recent years, the world’s largest migration after war-torn Syria. The International Monetary Fund projects a 25% decline this year in Venezuela’s GDP, while hyperinflation diminishes the value of its currency, the bolivar.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, won a second term in 2018. But his political adversaries and several nations, including the U.S., reject his legitimacy after he banned the most popular challengers.

Guaidó, 37, vowed to oust 58-year-old Maduro early last year after becoming head of the National Assembly. The Trump administration led dozens of nations in support of Guaidó.

Washington hit Maduro and his political allies with sanctions, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest.

On Saturday, the White House National Security Council said the election scheduled for Sunday was fraudulent.

“This election only serves to keep Maduro in power and does nothing to build a better future for the people of Venezuela,” the council tweeted. “The U.S. will continue its unwavering demands for freedom, basic human rights, the rule of law, and truly fair elections in Venezuela.”

Maduro remains in power with backing from Venezuela’s military and international support from nations like Iran, Russia, China, and Cuba. Maduro’s domestic allies also control the top court, prosecutor’s office, and elections commission.International bodies like the European Union have refused to send observers to Sunday’s election, saying the conditions for a democratic process don’t exist.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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