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Italy: Lawmakers Want Salvini to Explain Alleged Russia Deal

Opposition lawmakers in Italy demanded Thursday to have Interior Minister Matteo Salvini appear in Parliament about allegations that a covert Russian oil sale scheme was devised to fund his pro-Moscow League party.

Democratic Party lawmakers pressed for a parliamentary inquiry following another media report with allegations that a former Salvini associate proposed an under-the-table arrangement to pump money into the right-wing party.

The alleged proposal for the multimillion-euro plan was made last year after the League became a partner in Italy’s populist coalition government and ahead of May’s European Parliament elections.

Italian Senator Gregorio De Falco, top right, speaks at the Senate in Rome, July 11, 2019. Opposition lawmakers want to question Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini about allegations of a Russian oil deal to fund his pro-Moscow League party.

As he did when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year, Salvini shrugged off the latest version.

“Never took a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka of financing from Russia,” Salvini said after the BuzzFeed report was published Wednesday.

Salvini has openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and vigorously advocates an end to European Union economic sanctions on Russia.

The opposition lawmakers specifically want to question Salvini, the BuzzFeed journalist who reported the allegations, Italy’s ambassador to Moscow, and Russia’s ambassador to Rome.

They also want to hear from Gianluca Savoini, a League associate close to the Russians who allegedly championed the proposed deal.

Allegations

The BuzzFeed article about a Moscow meeting aimed at arranging such a deal in 2018 largely mirrored allegations that appeared months ago in Italian magazine L’Espresso.

BuzzFeed built on L’Espresso’s story, saying it had obtained an audio of the conversation about the purported deal among Italians and Russians at a Moscow hotel.

Both articles said the alleged deal would have involved a Russian energy company selling fuel to an Italian energy company. The fuel would be allegedly offered at a discount, with part of the difference purportedly going to the League’s coffers. 

Both L’Espresso and BuzzFeed stressed the reporters had no confirmation the deal was sealed or evidence that fuel was delivered or funds channeled to the League.  

Reaction from Salvini

Asked what role alleged middleman Savoini has in the League, Salvini replied brusquely, “I don’t know. Ask him. It’s ridiculous, all that I read in the papers.”

Milan daily Corriere della Sera quoted Savoini, in a text message exchange with the newspaper, as saying of the BuzzFeed account: “All conjecture! Nothing concrete because neither money nor funds ever came to the League from Russia. Never!”

The League is the junior partner in a populist coalition with the 5-Star Movement that had led the Italian government since June 2018.

Premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters he hadn’t listened to the audio linked to the BuzzFeed report but had faith in Salvini and welcomes any investigation.

The Italian news agency ANSA said that Milan-based prosecutors had started looking into possible international corruption after L’Espresso’s article in February.

Salvini contends sanctions against Russia unfairly hurt Italian exporters.

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France Adopts Pioneering Tax on Internet Tech Giants After US Threat

France adopted a pioneering tax on internet giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook on Thursday, despite U.S. threats of new tariffs on French imports.

The final vote in favor of the tax in the French Senate came hours after the Trump administration announced an investigation into the tax under the provision used last year to probe China’s technology policies, which led to tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.

”Between allies, we can, and we should, solve our differences without using threats,” Bruno Le Maire said. “France is a sovereign country. It will make its own sovereign decisions on fiscal measures.”

The tax amounts to a 3% annual levy on the French revenues of digital companies with yearly global sales worth more than 750 million euros ($844 million) and French revenue exceeding 25 million euros. The tax primarily targets those that use consumer data to sell online advertising.

”Each of us is seeing the emergence of economic giants with monopolistic attributes and who not only want to control a maximum amount of data and make money with this data, but also go further than that by, in the absence of rules, escaping taxes and putting into place instruments that could, tomorrow, become a sovereign currency,” Le Maire said.

The French Finance Ministry has estimated that the tax would raise about 500 million euros annually ($563 million) at first — but predicted fast growth.

The tech industry is warning that consumers could pay more. U.S. companies affected included Airbnb and Uber as well as those from China and Europe.

The bill aims to stop multinationals from avoiding taxes by setting up headquarters in low-tax EU countries. Currently, the companies pay nearly no tax in countries where they have large sales like France.

France failed to persuade EU partners to impose a Europe-wide tax on tech giants, but is now pushing for an international deal with the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

”The internet industry is a great American export, supporting millions of jobs and businesses of all sizes. Global tax rules should be updated for the digital age — and there is a process to do so underway at the OECD — but discriminatory taxes against U.S. firms are not the right approach,” said Jordan Haas of the Internet Association, an industry trade group whose members include Facebook, Google and Uber.

Another U.S. trade group, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, also said the French proposal discriminated against American companies.

The U.S. investigation got bipartisan support from the top members of the Senate Finance Committee. In a joint statement, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, committee chairman, and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon said: “The digital services tax that France and other European countries are pursuing is clearly protectionist and unfairly targets American companies in a way that will cost U.S. jobs and harm American workers.”

Also on Thursday, Britain moved ahead with similar plans as the government published draft legislation for a “digital services tax.” Starting in April, search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces that “derive value from U.K. users” will be subject to a new 2% percent tax.

Small companies and unprofitable startups will also be spared in the British proposals. The levy will apply to companies with more than 500 million pounds ($626 million) in revenue, if more than 25 million pounds comes from British users.

The tax is temporary and would be replaced by a global deal, which Britain has also been pushing for through the OECD and the Group of 20 major economies.

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US Targets Venezuela Intelligence Agency with Sanctions

The Trump administration imposed sanctions Thursday on Venezuela’s military intelligence agency, which is accused of torturing to death a navy captain in its custody.
 
The latest move by the U.S. Treasury Department to pressure President Nicolas Maduro from power followed another round of negotiations in Barbados between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders aimed at ending Venezuela’s political crisis.
 
Maduro’s spokesman Jorge Rodriguez said the talks moderated by Norway that closed Wednesday resulted in a successful exchange, but gave no details and it wasn’t immediately clear if any agreements had been reached.
 
The U.S.-backed opposition is demanding early presidential elections, contending that Maduro’s re-election last year was invalid.
 
Few hold out hope for the most recent attempt at dialogue. Several rounds of talks have failed to lead to solutions as Venezuela’s political and financial crisis has deepened in recent years, sparking one of the worst migration crises in Latin America’s history.
 
Maduro often says he’s willing to negotiate to end hostilities and bring peace to the South American nation, bu the opposition accuses the socialist government of using talks as a stalling tactic while continuing to threaten, torture and kill political opponents.
 
The Vatican extended its institutional prestige in 2016, attempting to mediate a dialogue that the pope later said went up in smoke,'' placing blame on Maduro. A year later, a fresh round of talks in the Dominican Republic also fizzled with no constructive outcome.<br />
 <br />
Meanwhile, crippling U.S. oil sanctions have exacerbated a crisis marked by food, fuel and medicine shortages that sent 4 million people _ more than 10% of Venezuela's population _ fleeing the country in recent years.<br />
 <br />
The new U.S. sanctions target Venezuela's General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. The sanctions appear to be largely symbolic because they prohibit Americans' dealings with the agency, which likely has few already.<br />
 <br />
The agency arrested Capt. Rafael Acosta on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Maduro. His attorney says he showed signs of torture before dying after a court appearance.<br />
 <br />
The politically motivated arrest and tragic death… was unwarranted and unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.  
 
Mnuchin said Treasury is committed to ending the Maduro regime’s “inhumane treatment of political opponents, innocent civilians, and members of the military in an effort to suppress dissent.”
 
The Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, accusing them stealing from the once-wealthy nation’s coffers for personal gain while using the funds to repress critics.
 
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet recently published a report accusing Venezuelan officials of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and measures to erode democratic institutions.
 
Maduro says the United State seeks to replace him with a puppet government headed by opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido amid an economic war against his socialist country.
 

 

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Cameroon Fights Boko Haram Recruitment with Goats, Sheep

The government of Cameroon this week began rolling out an unlikely weapon in the fight against Boko Haram militants.

Authorities are distributing thousands of goats and sheep to young Cameroonians in villages along with border with Nigeria.

The program aims to providing livestock for a basic income in order to stop the Islamist militant group’s recruiting tactics. The hope is that the livestock will empower thousands of vulnerable families and stop them from joining the extremists, who promise jobs.

In the village of Salak, 17-year-old Oumar Nafisatu received four sheep.

Nafisatu says she is looking forward to having baby sheep so she can sell them to pay for her school fees. She is the only one to take care of herself, she says, after her father and mother passed away.

Beneficiaries of the initiative take possession of their livestock in Maroua, Cameroon, July 11, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

Boko Haram fighters killed Nafisatu’s parents, along with 21 others, when they attacked her village in 2017, forcing her to flee.

Just a week later, Nafisatu’s only sister was killed in a suicide bomb attack in a mosque at Kolofata. Boko Haram had recruited her with promises of a job as a house cleaner, then forced her to carry out the attack.

Cameroon’s government plans to distribute 60,000 goats and sheep by the end of the year.  The minister of livestock, known only as Dr. Taiga, said the animals will go to those who have suffered in the fight against Boko Haram.

He said the initiative is to help families who are vulnerable by providing animals that are fruitful and enable them to have money. They will provide for their basic needs, said Taiga, take care of their families, and help to avoid temptations that can jeopardize peace and bring chaos.

Cameroon’s minister of livestock, known only as Dr. Taiga, speaks in Maroua, Cameroon, July 11, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

The Lake Chad Basin Commission, with eight member nations in the region including Cameroon, says some areas attacked by Boko Haram have unemployment rates as high as 90 percent.

Midjiyawa Bakary, governor of Cameroon’s Far North region, notes there have been no major Boko Haram attacks in the past year but says the militants are still recruiting, and the military remains on alert.

He said people should be vigilant because Boko Haram is recruiting jobless youths with promises to improve their living conditions.  Village militias, known as self-defense groups, should be reactivated to work in collaboration with the military, officials, traditional rulers and the clergy, said Bakary. He said they can share information on any suspected activities that may upset the peace that has been returning to villages and towns.

 

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Ukraine-Russia Conflict Sparks Human Rights Debate

A U.N. report on extensive human rights violations in the Russian-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine and in the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula has triggered a fiery debate at the U.N. human rights council.  

The conflict between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is entering its sixth year. U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore says 5 million people are directly affected by ongoing hostilities along the contact line, the area that separates the two warring forces.

“Shelling, use of small arms and light weapons, mines, explosive remnants of war — these continue to kill and injure civilian women and men, girls and boys,” she said.

FILE – Men speak outside a residential building, which locals said was damaged during recent shelling, in the suburb of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, June 28, 2019.

Thirteen people have been killed and 78 injured this year, Gilmore said, adding that people in the rebel-controlled areas also suffer from extreme poverty because they do not receive their pensions from the government in Kyiv. She criticized the self-proclaimed authorities in eastern Ukraine for denying human rights monitors access to the detainees, many of whom she said have been subjected to torture.

She also accused the Russian Federation of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014.

“Those who criticize the occupation or advocate broadly for human rights are intimidated, even imprisoned,” she said. “Crimean Tatars have been subjected to arrests [and] convictions for affiliation with Muslim groups declared as ‘extremist organizations’ under Russian law.”    

Reaction from Ukraine

Following Gilmore’s statement, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yuri Klymenko, lashed out at Russia’s occupation of Crimea. He accused the Kremlin of violating international humanitarian law in support of the separatists in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

“The temporary occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as in Crimea, Russia stubbornly imposes its citizenships on the local population, thus violating the norms of international humanitarian law and the sovereignty of Ukraine,” Klymenko said. “Russia has not come to Donbas to protect anyone.  Russia, as an aggressor state, has come to kill.”  

Ukraine’s criticisms did not sit well with the Russian representative at the council. Second secretary at the Russian mission to the U.N. in Geneva, Kristina Sukacheva, sneered at Ukraine’s efforts to blame Russia for violations in the Donbas and Crimea. She called the accusations unsubstantiated and farcical.

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Britain, Canada Create Fund to Promote Global Free Press

Britain and Canada established a fund Wednesday to train and provide legal support for journalists in some of the world’s hot spots.  

The two nations hope other countries will also contribute to the Global Media Defense Fund, which will be administered by UNESCO.

Britain is donating about $3.8 million, and Canada kicked in about $765,000. 

Britain also announced it was launching a separate, $18.8 million program to combat what many see as a growing crisis for independent media worldwide. 

Two journalists relax in front of plaques memorializing journalists killed since 2016. The display was part of the Global Conference for Media Freedom.

The new fund was announced in a keynote address by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London. The conference, which continues Thursday, is co-hosted by Canada and Britain.

In his speech, Hunt told the story of reporter Francisco Romero Diaz, who was killed in May  in southern Mexico, to illustrate the dangers faced by a growing number of journalists each year. Last year, Hunt said, nearly 100 journalists were killed — more than twice the annual toll just a decade ago.

Amal Clooney, a lawyer and activist who defended two Reuters reporters recently freed from jail in Myanmar, noted that Washington-based Freedom House, which publishes an annual report on world press freedom, recorded its 13th consecutive year of decline in its global freedom index.

“This decline in media freedom doesn’t only mean that journalists have fewer rights,” she said. “It means we all have.”

Money not enough

The cash pledged Wednesday is earmarked for training journalists, paying legal expenses and creating other support systems.  But some of the reporters and editors covering the conference are calling for more direct and decisive action by world leaders to protect journalists and punish those who kill them.

Clooney and Hunt both noted that more often than not, the killers of journalists aren’t punished for their crimes. That’s especially true when the perpetrators are government officials. And leaders of other nations often appear disinclined to try to hold their counterparts accountable.

“When Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was tortured to death and dismembered by Saudi Arabian officials in Istanbul, the world responded with little more than a collective shrug,” Clooney said.

FILE – Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland at the State Department​ in Washington, Feb. 8, 2017.

During a question-and-answer period, a Canadian reporter asked Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, why Canada and other Group of 20 countries didn’t strip Saudi Arabia of its hosting privileges for next year’s conference over the Khashoggi killing.   

Freeland explained that Canada expressed its concern for the “atrocious murder” and sanctioned 17 Saudis believed to be connected to the killing. But the G-20, as an economic organization, isn’t the appropriate venue for a values dispute.

“We do need to have places where we attend meetings and talk, even with those countries that are acting in ways that are 100% opposed to our values,” she said.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions who investigated Khashoggi’s slaying, said during an afternoon session that it’s time for countries to stand up to leaders who target journalists and commit other crimes.

“We have to stop the bullies,” she said. “There are bullies around the world using their influence. But they are doing so because we are silent. I’m past calling for hope. We need courage.”

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US Border Apprehensions Decline Amid Summer Heat, Mexico Deal

The number of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border declined in June, breaking a six-month streak of dramatic increases and prompting the Trump administration to quickly — though cautiously — claim an early victory in its negotiations for stricter border enforcement in Mexico. 

The number of unauthorized border crossers detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in June fell to 94,897, a 28% decline from May, according to Wednesday’s data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

Apprehensions declined as summer temperatures climbed and Mexico ramped up its own border enforcement following an agreement with the U.S. to avoid a tariff President Donald Trump threatened to levy.

“What we see in June is that our strategy is working. The president’s engagement with Mexico, the deal to enforce immigration security on their southern border … that’s clearly having an impact on the flow,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told CNN on Tuesday, hours after his agency released preliminary estimates for June.

Reasons behind fluctuations

Migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — make up the majority of apprehensions. However, migration numbers fluctuate for various reasons, including changes in season, political climate, policy and weather.

In part, “we generally do have a small decline in June due to the high summer temperatures,” a senior CBP official told reporters, acknowledging that there may be more than one factor causing last month’s decrease in apprehensions.

The official added that the agency is “very optimistic … as Mexico continues to deploy resources to their southern border and continues to beef up their border security.”

The number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border usually reaches a peak in March, before declining steadily over the summer months. But this year, that reversal did not happen. Instead, that number spiked in May to more than 132,000.

“The logistics of this flow is different than the U.S. has ever seen. And the size is different than Mexico has ever seen,” Andrew Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, told VOA.

The drop in apprehensions from May to June shows “clearly there’s an effect of Mexico’s enforcement policies,” Selee said. “Is the Mexico enforcement policy coherent? No. They threw together an enforcement response to stave off the threat from the Trump administration. It’s had a dissuasive effect — but only so far.”

In the wake of the tariff threat, Mexico deployed members of its newly formed National Guard — more like a national police force than a military branch — to its northern and southern borders to curb the passage of migrants.

The senior CBP official who spoke to reporters Wednesday said Mexican forces have been able to reduce the number of travelers in large groups attempting to cross into the U.S. In one case, the official said, “instead of having 200 [unauthorized border crossers] to deal with, we ended up having approximately 60 apprehensions.”

Migrant children

Families and unaccompanied children still make up the majority of unauthorized border crossers, a senior CBP official told reporters during a media call Wednesday. 

FILE – Members of the Border Patrol and U.S. military talk with migrants who illegally crossed the border between Mexico and the U.S. to request political asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 6, 2019.

For years, single adults — largely men — made up the bulk of apprehensions, at a time when agricultural, seasonal work was a major draw. But that has changed over the years, and in 2019 in particular.

U.S. border detention centers were ill-equipped to handle the changed demographics. In recent months, media reports, activists, lawyers and the government’s own internal investigators have criticized the quality of care for those in Border Patrol custody, especially in facilities for children.

From a peak in late May of more than 2,500 children held by CBP, the agency now has around 200, the senior official told reporters. 

The children are being transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with caring for unaccompanied minors until their immigration or asylum cases are adjudicated, or until suitable guardians are located.

U.S. lawmakers will again question the acting DHS secretary in a hearing on July 12 over border policies and the treatment of detained migrants.

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Volunteers Help Rid Park of Trash That’s Killing Treasured Japanese Deer

Volunteers on Wednesday began the cleanup of plastic bags and trash in Japan’s famous Nara Park to try to protect the area’s wild deer.  
 
Park officials said nine of 14 deer that have died since March had masses of tangled plastic in their stomachs, with the heaviest amount weighing 4.3 kilograms (9.5 pounds). 
 
The picturesque park in Japan’s capital is home to more than 1,000 sika deer that are considered sacred and have protected “national treasure” status. 
 
Tourists may feed the deer special crackers, “shika senbei,” that are sugar-free and not wrapped in plastic. Officials of the Nara Deer Welfare Foundation say some visitors offer the animals other types of snacks. 
 
“The deer probably think that the snacks and the plastic packs covering them are both food,” foundation official Yoshitaka Ashimura said. “The only way to prevent this is to remove all the garbage.” 

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