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Anti-Headscarf Law Activist Sues Iran in US Over Harassment

An Iranian-American activist famous for her campaign against the Islamic Republic’s mandatory headscarf, or hijab, for women has sued Iran in U.S. federal court.

Masih Alinejad’s lawsuit filed on Monday seeks monetary damages, alleging that a government-led harassment campaign has targeted her and her family.

It also comes in the aftermath of nationwide protests in Iran over spiking gasoline prices that reportedly killed at least 208 people in November.

Even before that unrest, authorities in Iran had announced women faced a possible 10-year prison sentence for sending videos to Alinejad’s “White Wednesday” civil disobedience campaign against the mandatory head covering.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

 

‘It’s Bittersweet’: Leia has Key Role As ‘Star Wars’ Wraps Skywalker Saga

The highly anticipated final chapter in the Skywalker film saga will feature a significant role for Princess Leia, the beloved “Star Wars” character played by late actress Carrie Fisher.

Writer and director J.J. Abrams said he had enough unused footage of Fisher from the filming of 2015 movie “The Force Awakens” to make Leia a key player in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the “Star Wars” film that debuts in theaters on Dec. 20.

Fisher died in 2016 at age 60.

“We couldn’t tell the story without Leia,” Abrams said in an interview on Wednesday. “She’s the mother of the villain of the piece. She’s in a sense the mother of the resistance, the rebellion, the leader, the general.”

“Her role is, I would say, integral,” he added. “This is not just a cosmetic thing where we’re sort of inserting Leia.”

“The Rise of Skywalker” is the ninth movie in the celebrated space franchise that debuted in 1977 and is now owned by Walt Disney Co.

In recent films, Leia had risen to general leading the fight against the evil First Order in the galaxy far, far away. Her son is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the warrior who took over as ruler of the First Order at the end of 2017 film “The Last Jedi.”

If Fisher had been alive, “there is no question we would have done, I’m sure, additional and other things,” Abrams said. “But the fact we had the material to do what we did is incredibly gratifying.”

Daisy Ridley, who portrays resistance fighter Rey, recorded scenes for “Rise of Skywalker” in which her character interacted with the previously recorded images of Fisher.

“I was basically reacting to footage I had seen of her, so it was quite emotional, very strange,” Ridley said. “But I do think you feel a real sense of love between Leia and Rey in this one, and Leia is a big part of the story.”

Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) also have scenes that include dialogue with Leia, cast members said.

Abrams said Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, who will appear for the third time as a lieutenant in the resistance forces, also will be seen on screen with her mother.

Anthony Daniels, who plays the droid C-3PO, said the scenes with Fisher looked “totally believable, quite wonderful, quite respectful” in the final cut of the film, which was shown to some cast members this week.

Isaac said he felt “a real melancholy” when he watched Fisher on screen in “Rise of Skywalker.”

“You see her right there, and she’s so vital and alive, and to think she’s not there anymore, and she won’t get to see how we say goodbye to Princess Leia,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”

House Democrats: Trump Abuse of Power Impeachable Offense

Congressional Democrats launched the next step in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump Wednesday, hearing testimony from legal scholars on what the U.S. Constitution says about the standards for impeaching and removing a president from office. The House Judiciary Committee hearings take lawmakers a step closer to a vote on Articles of Impeachment, measures that if passed would lead to a Senate trial. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.
 

US, North Korea Allude to War Ahead of Pyongyang’s Deadline

The United States and North Korea are resorting to alluded threats of force ahead of Pyongyang’s end-of-year deadline for progress with nuclear negotiations.

Pak Jong Chon, head of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), threatened to reciprocate any U.S. military action with force in a statement he made to North Korean state media Wednesday. The statement was a direct response to comments made by President Trump, who alluded to using military force against North Korea if necessary.

“One thing I would like to make clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only,” Pak reportedly said through North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) Dec. 4. “Anyone can guess with what action the DPRK will answer if the U.S. undertakes military actions against the DPRK.”

Hours earlier, Trump spoke about North Korea to reporters at the NATO summit in London: “Now we have the most powerful military we’ve ever had and we’re by far the most powerful country in the world. And, hopefully, we don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it. If we have to, we’ll do it.”

FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019.

Grave sign

While it’s true that the United States and North Korea have exchanged numerous threats since Trump took office in January 2017, some experts believe that the latest exchange is a grave sign of rising tensions.

“There has been a pattern all year in North Korea’s statements. They have been quite deliberate about not directly criticizing Trump,” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst and an associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “This rhetoric — where Trump and Kim are starting to move toward directly criticizing one another or seeing each other as part of the problem — is significant.”

Earlier this week, on Dec. 3, an official at North Korea’s foreign ministry accused the United States of keeping North Korea “bound to dialogue” as a “foolish trick” or political tool to use for the 2020 presidential election. Ri Thae Song, the first vice minister, also stated that “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

End-of-year deadline

The uptick in tensions likely has to do with Kim Jong Un’s Dec. 31, 2019, deadline to see tangible progress in nuclear negotiations from the United States. So far, North Korea has not stated what specific steps it would need to see from President Trump by the end of the year, but Delury said that Pyongyang purposely left it open-ended.

“Really, [North Korea’s] position is that they’ve done a lot of stuff for the U.S. and Trump takes credit for it, but the U.S. has not done anything in return,” Delury said. “So what they’re saying is that the U.S. needs to acknowledge the positive steps that North Korea has made and do something to reciprocate.”

The United States has repeatedly refused to lift economic sanctions against North Korea in return for several concessions from Pyongyang, including repatriating soldier remains from the Korean War, shutting down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and ceasing all long-range missile and nuclear tests.

“Interestingly, the whole discussion on the American side has nothing to do with [making concessions]. It’s more, ‘What are we going to ask for next?’” Delury said. “You can see there’s a big gap. From my reading of these statements, the Dec. 31 deadline isn’t about locking in the next phase of steps. It’s almost refers to locking in the current situation. The North Koreans are saying, ‘You gotta do something to reciprocate.’”

Trump Vows to Designate Mexican Cartels as Terrorist Groups

U.S. President Donald Trump appears intent on following through with his plan to formally designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. His announcement has put the Mexican government on the defensive. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari looks at the political impact of such a move and its effect on bilateral relations with Mexico.
 

British Caver Says He Felt ‘Shamed’ by Musk ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet

A British caver who was labeled “pedo guy” by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk said Wednesday he felt “humiliated” and “dirtied” by the tech billionaire’s accusation, and that it amounted to “a life sentence.”

Speaking on the second day of a trial in Los Angeles federal court to determine whether Musk’s comment constituted defamation, Vernon Unsworth said the entrepreneur’s tweet referring to him as “pedo guy” had branded him as a pedophile.

“It’s disgusting,” Unsworth told the court, his voice quivering. “I feel humiliated, shamed, dirtied.”

“Effectively from day one, I was given a life sentence without parole,” Unsworth, who helped rescue youth soccer players trapped in a cave in Thailand, told the court.

He said Musk’s Twitter rant had resulted in his name being associated with pedophilia.

“Sometimes I feel very vulnerable, very isolated,” he said. “I deal with it on my own, I bottle it up.”

Twitter spat

Musk’s highly publicized row with Unsworth erupted in July 2018 after the British caver dismissed the entrepreneur’s proposal to build a mini-submarine to rescue the boys stuck in the cave as a “PR stunt.”

He also said that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Attorneys for both sides in court have been going over the meaning of the term “pedo guy,” which Musk claims was a common insult in South Africa, where he grew up, and meant nothing more than “creepy old man.”

The 48-year-old tech tycoon insisted during two days of testimony that he was just reacting to Unsworth’s “unprovoked” comments about him when he published the tweet.

Musk also referred to Unsworth in email messages as a “child rapist.”

Musk apologized

He apologized to Unsworth several times during his testimony and insisted his “pedo guy” tweet did not mean he was accusing the caver of being a pedophile.

“Pedo guy is more flippant than pedo, especially in the context I used in the tweet,” Musk told the court Wednesday. “It’s obviously an insult, no one interpreted it as meaning he was actually a pedophile.”

The trial, which began Tuesday and is expected to last through Friday, hinges on whether Musk’s tweet could have been interpreted by a reasonable person as accusing Unsworth of pedophilia.

Unsworth, who lives in Britain and Thailand, is seeking unspecified damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress.

His testimony was set to continue Thursday.

Hong Kong Lives with Tear Gas, Worries About Its Effects

By day, the small commercial kitchen in a Hong Kong industrial building produces snacks. At night, it turns into a secret laboratory assembling a kit for pro-democracy protesters seeking to detox after repeated exposure to tear gas.

Volunteers seated around a kitchen island sort and pack multicolored pills into small resealable bags. At another table, a woman makes turmeric pills by dipping gelatin capsules into a shallow dish of the deep orange spice.

“Police have used so much tear gas and people are suffering,” said the owner of the kitchen, speaking on condition of anonymity because she fears repercussions for her business. “We want to especially help frontline protesters, who have put their lives on the line for the city.”

FILE – Workers pack multicolored supplement pills in small resealable bags at an industrial building in Hong Kong, Dec. 1, 2019.

10,000 canisters of tear gas

Hong Kong police have fired more than 10,000 tear gas canisters to quell violent protests that have rocked the city for six months. The movement’s demands include fully democratic elections and an investigation into police use of force, including tear gas.

Its heavy and prolonged use in Hong Kong — one of the world’s most densely populated cities and known for its concrete jungle of high-rises — is unusual and has sparked health fears.

While there’s no evidence of long-term health effects, it’s also largely untested territory.

“I don’t think there have been circumstances where there has been this level of repeated exposure for people to tear gas. What’s going on in Hong Kong is pretty unprecedented,” said Alistair Hay, a British toxicologist from the University of Leeds.

Police have fired it in cramped residential areas and near hospitals, malls and schools, affecting not only protesters but also children, the elderly and the sick.

FILE – Pro-democracy protesters react as police fire tear gas at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Nov. 17, 2019.

Fears of exposure

Some worry that tear gas residue could stick for days or weeks to asphalt, walls, ventilation ducts and other places. Parents, schools and various community groups have demanded to know the chemical makeup of the gas, which police won’t divulge, so they can clean up properly.

In the absence of official information, some parents have stopped taking their kids to parks, and online tips urge mothers to refrain from breastfeeding for a few hours if they are exposed the gas. Many avoided fresh fruits after a wholesale market that supplies half of the city’s supply was gassed last month.

New daily rituals include using a baking soda solution to bathe, wash clothes and clean surfaces. Tips shared by protesters include not bathing in hot water after exposure as it is believed it will open pores and let the chemicals seep in.

The kitchen owner making detox kits said she wants to help protesters, who often avoid seeking treatment at hospitals to hide their identity and avoid possible arrest.

The kits contain capsules that include vitamins and other natural ingredients and are packed into a small pouch with 10 bottles of a cloudy caramel-colored drink that contains an antioxidant said to be an immune-system booster. They come with instructions for a 10-day detoxification program that includes no alcohol and no smoking.

It has not been scientifically tested for treating tear gas symptoms, but the kitchen owner claimed that feedback was positive from a first batch distributed to frontline protesters through a clandestine network of first-aid and social workers.

Hay, the toxicologist, said that excessive concentrations of CS gas, a common tear gas component, and residue that persists in the environment could cause prolonged symptoms and health complications for vulnerable groups.

Protesters sickened

A survey in August by a group of doctors of some 170 reporters covering the protests found most of them had difficulty breathing, persistent coughing or coughed up blood, skin allergies and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting, according to Hong Kong media reports.

Further spooking residents are reports that the tear gas could emit dioxin, a cancer-causing substance. Hay said he wasn’t aware of any cases of tear gas producing dioxin, although it could in theory be released if the canister burns above 250 degrees Celsius (480 degrees Fahrenheit).

Government officials say that any toxin found could come from the many street fires set off by protesters. They refuse to reveal the components of the gas, citing operational sensitivities.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas were fired on a single day last month, hired an independent laboratory to test air, water and soil samples. Preliminary tests reportedly showed no harmful substances.

Nonetheless, a high school near the campus hired professional experts to decontaminate its grounds.

FILE – A worker blends supplement drinks at an industrial building in Hong Kong, Dec. 1, 2019.

A 17-year-old volunteer helping make the detox kits said he has joined many protests and often experienced stomach cramps, nausea and rashes for days after being gassed. During a rally in June, he said couldn’t breathe and thought he was going to die.

Another volunteer said she can see clouds of tear gas in the streets below her apartment in Mongkok, a hot spot for protests, and smell it even with her windows closed.

She doesn’t have the courage to join the protests, she said, but feels she must contribute.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution in a city that has become starkly divided by the violent protests.
 

China Official Media Condemn US Uighur Bill 

Chinese official media excoriated the United States and called for harsh reprisals in editorials on Thursday after the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation requiring a stronger response to Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority. 

The commentaries followed warnings from China on Wednesday that the legislation could affect bilateral cooperation, including a near-term deal to end the two countries’ trade war. 

A front-page editorial in the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper said the passage of the U.S. legislation “harbors evil intent and is extremely sinister.” 

“Underestimating the determination and will of the Chinese people is doomed to fail,” it said. 

By a vote of 407 to 1, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the Uighur bill, which would require the Trump administration to toughen its response to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west. 

The bill still must be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate before being sent to U.S. President Donald Trump to sign into law. 

The White House has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the bill, which contains a provision allowing the president to waive sanctions if he determines that to be in the national interest. 

Kept in camps

U.N. experts and activists say China has detained possibly 1 million Uighurs in camps in Xinjiang. China says the camps are part of an anti-terror crackdown and are providing vocational training. It denies any mistreatment of Uighurs. 

The English-language China Daily called the bill a “stab in the back, given Beijing’s efforts to stabilize the already turbulent China-U.S. relationship.” 

“It seems an odds-on bet that more [sanctions] can be expected if the latest approval for State Department meddling goes into the statute books,” it said. 

The English-language edition of the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the People’s Daily, said China should be prepared for a “long-term battle with the U.S.” 

The editorials echoed comments by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, who said on Wednesday that “any wrong words and deeds must pay the due price.” 

Official commentary also took aim at the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, recently signed into law by Trump. 

The act requires the U.S. State Department to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favorable U.S. trading terms, and it threatens sanctions for human rights violations. 

‘Idiotic’

A front-page editorial in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily framed the bill as a U.S. attempt to use Hong Kong to contain China, calling such a move “idiotic nonsense.” 

“The Chinese government will in no way allow anyone to act wilfully in Hong Kong, and must take effective measures to prevent, contain and counteract external forces from interfering in Hong Kong affairs.” 

Hong Kong has been wracked by nearly six months of often violent protests, with demonstrators demanding greater democratic freedoms in the Chinese city. 

Tenor Domingo Blames Accusations on Cultural Differences

Placido Domingo has sought to blame the allegations of sexual harassment against him on cultural differences between countries, adding that there are places nowadays where “one can’t say anything to a woman.”

In an interview published Wednesday in Spanish leading daily El Pais, the Madrid-born tenor said “here (in Spain) it’s not like that but in other places, and specifically in those groups from where the accusations come, it is.”

The Associated Press reported earlier this year allegations in the United States by more than 20 women of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. Some claimed that rejecting his advances hurt their musical careers.

Domingo, 78, denies the allegations.

While most of his U.S. dates were canceled in the wake of the reports and an investigation is under way at the Los Angeles Opera, European venues have supported Domingo and he has been greeted with ovations.

FILE – Placido Domingo poses for selfies at the Festspielhaus opera house after he performed “Luisa Miller” by Giuseppe Verdi in Salzburg, Austria, Aug. 25, 2019.

Some opera managers, notably at the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna State Opera, countered the reports by saying that the opera star had always behaved well in their venues.

Domingo told El Pais he believed harassment “should be punished in every moment and in all periods” but felt rules and standards had changed.

“What I meant, as a Spaniard, is that the use of the compliment, for example ‘what a nice suit you have, how well you look,’ that was something you could say 30 years ago, even two years ago.”

Domingo initially responded to the allegations, saying they were “in many ways, simply incorrect” and that at the time he believed his “interactions and relationships were always welcomed and consensual.”

Domingo told El Pais that he wanted to continue singing and did not rule out performing again in the U.S.

“If the opportunity arises, of course,” he said. “There are some offers. Not everywhere is (like) the Los Angeles or the Metropolitan (in New York).”

No ‘reprisals’ planned

He ruled out taking legal action in the matter.

“You know it’s useless. Against a media outlet you have everything to lose, and as regards the accusers, I don’t intend taking reprisals against anybody.

“As I have said, I have not been accused of any crime and I don’t intend taking a case against anybody,” said Domingo.

Domingo has given several interviews recently in Europe.

“The accusations they make against me make no sense,” he said. “What I want is to stop talking about all of this.”
 

Italy Steps Up Placement of Migrants Around Europe

Italy has increased relocation of migrants around Europe, official figures showed Wednesday, reducing frictions around the issue and enabling far-right leader Matteo Salvini focus more on the economy.

Interior Ministry data showed that 172 migrants who came onshore from the Mediterranean were sent elsewhere in the last three months, compared with just 90 in the January-August period.

Immigration has been one of Italy’s most contentious issues and fueled the rise of Salvini’s League party, which ruled in coalition with the 5-Star Movement from mid-2018 until August.

The new administration signed an agreement to distribute migrants saved from the Mediterranean around the European Union to ease pressure on southern states.

Salvini’s replacement as interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, is a technocrat with no party affiliation and has established better relations with European partners. 

“European countries prefer the current government and interior minister to Salvini, who constantly accused them,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, an analyst from Bologna University.

FILE – League party leader Matteo Salvini talks to reporters in Rome, Aug. 22, 2019.

During his time in office, Salvini sought to block Italy’s ports to charity migrant rescue ships. Those noisy standoffs are over, though the new government of the 5-Star and the center-left Democratic Party has not repealed his laws.

With EU countries offering to take 82% of migrants qualified for relocation, pressure on Italy has eased and Salvini has shifted his focus. Now he leads opposition to reform of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which he says could jeopardize citizens’ savings with restructuring of Italy’s debt.

Polls show the League remains Italy’s most popular party.

“Salvini jumps on every issue the government has difficulties with. The ESM [reform] is perfect. He will wait for other occasions and will try to exploit them,” Pasquino added.

Italy’s immigration problems are, however, far from over.

Arrivals may have halved from last year to 10,960 so far in 2019, according to government data. But there are still 95,000 migrants in Italian centers and more than 1,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, the International Organization for Migration says.

Marches Begin to Mark Colombia’s Third National Strike 

Colombian unions and student groups held a third national strike Wednesday amid fraught talks between protest leaders and the government over President Ivan Duque’s social and economic policies. 

The strike was the latest demonstration in two weeks of protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of marchers and put pressure on Duque’s proposed tax reform, which lowers duties on businesses. 

The protests prompted him to announce a “great national dialogue” on social issues, but government efforts to stop new demonstrations have failed as the union-led National Strike Committee has stuck firmly to demands for one-on-one talks and refused to call off protests. 

Demonstrators hold flags during a protest as a national strike continues in Bogota, Colombia, Dec. 4, 2019.

The demonstrations, while largely peaceful, resulted in damage to dozens of public transport stations and curfews in Cali and Bogota. 

Protesters have wide-ranging demands, including that the government do more to stop the killing of human rights activists, offer more support for former leftist rebels who demobilized under a peace deal and dissolve the ESMAD riot police, whom marchers accuse of excessive force.

“We’re continuing to march to send a message to the president and to Congress: Don’t play with the people,” said student Diana Rodriguez, 23, as she made her way toward Bogota’s Bolivar Plaza late Wednesday morning. 

“Yesterday they approved the tax reform, and that shows they aren’t taking us seriously,” Rodriguez said, referring to the Tuesday approval of the bill by economic committees in both houses of Congress. The proposal now moves to a floor debate. 

Five people have died in connection with the demonstrations, which started November 21 and have occurred in tandem with protests in other Latin American countries. 

“I invite all Colombians to mobilize massively to show the government that there is another opinion in the country, that the other Colombia has the right to be listened to,” Central Union of Workers President Diogenes Orjuela told Reuters by phone early on Wednesday, adding marches must be peaceful. 

Meetings between Duque’s representatives and the committee are expected to continue on Thursday. 

The committee has made 13 demands, including that the government reject a rise in the pension age and a cut to the minimum wage for young people, both policies Duque denies supporting. 

The government has repeatedly said the demands for one-on-one dialogue exclude other sectors and that it cannot meet demands that it refrain from deploying the ESMAD. 

Trump Administration Moves to Remove 700,000 People From Food Stamps

The Trump administration said on Wednesday it will make it harder for states to keep residents in the U.S. food stamp program in a move that is projected to end benefits for nearly 700,000 people.

President Donald Trump has argued that many Americans receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, do not need it given the strong economy and low unemployment. The program provides free food to 36 million Americans.

The administration has now finalized a rule that tightens guidelines on when and where states can waive limits on how long certain residents can receive benefits. The changes will move more “able-bodied” adults into the workplace, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said.

“States are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their population, and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits,” he told reporters.

The United States generally limits the amount of time that adults ages 18-49, who do not have dependents or a disability, can receive food stamps to three months in a 36-month period, unless they meet certain work requirements.

States can apply for waivers to this time limit due to tough economic conditions. However, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5% have been included in waived areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP.

The agency is stiffening guidelines defining where recipients can reside to be eligible for waivers and standards for demonstrating whether an area has enough jobs to justify a waiver.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.6% in October.

“We need everyone who can work to work,” Perdue said.

But critics say the moves will hurt poor Americans.

“This is an unacceptable escalation of the administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet,” said U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat.

The administration has sought to tighten requirements for food stamps without congressional approval after Congress blocked a Trump-backed effort to pass new restrictions through the Farm Bill last year.

The latest rule will take effect next year and save the U.S. government $5.5 billion over five years by removing about 688,000 people from food stamps, said Brandon Lipps, a USDA deputy undersecretary.

“For those impacted it will mean less nutritious meals, or meals that are skipped altogether,” said Cassie Ramos, policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.