In The News

Taliban Total Takeover, Guinea Coup, Napoleon’s Hat

Welcome to Monday, where the Taliban seize control of the last pocket of resistance in Afghanistan, a coup is underway in Guinea and Napoleon's hat is up for sale. We also look at the success and failure of New Zealand's unique COVID-19 strategy, as the country struggles to tame its Delta outbreak.

Taliban Total Takeover, Guinea Coup, Napoleon’s Hat

A worker disinfects a movie hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the government decided to reopen movie theaters.

• Taliban claim control of last outstanding Afghan territory: The Taliban claimed victory over opposition forces in the Panjshir valley northeast of Kabul. After fighting the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), the area was captured and the Islamist group's takeover of Afghanistan has now been declared complete.

• Guinea president toppled by army: An unverified video shows soldiers in Guinea claiming they dissolved the government and seized power from Guinea's President Alpha Condé. The announcement comes after hours of gunfire near the presidential palace in the capital.

• COVID-19 update: G20 health ministers gathered yesterday in Rome for two days of talks on the global health situation and how to prevent future pandemics. The Mu variant, which the WHO has flagged as "of interest," is now spreading in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, New Zealand is doing better: Cases are in decline for the third day in a row and some of the restrictions in areas surrounding Auckland have been lifted.

• Six Palestinian militants escape from Israeli prison: Six Palestinian militants, five of whom belong to the Islamic Jihad movement, escaped from a high-security prison in the North of Israel. According to the prison, they escaped via a hole in their cell toilet leading to a tunnel. A massive manhunt is underway.

• Mexico City to replace Columbus statue with one of indigenous woman: An iconic statue of Christopher Columbus standing on one of Mexico City's principal avenues is to be replaced by one of an indigenous woman.

• Germany's China ambassador dies two weeks into the job: Jan Hecker, Germany's newly appointed ambassador to China, has died. His sudden death, the cause unknown, came just two weeks after he took up the post.

• Napoleon hat with DNA up for auction: A hat described as the "first hat to bear the emperor's DNA," has gone on display at auction house Bonhams in Hong Kong. Its present owner did not know the distinctive bicorne hat, which is often seen in depictions of Napoleon on the battlefield, had such a famous owner.

Argentine daily Página 12 reports on the suspension of the Brazil-Argentina World Cup qualifier game, featuring the visibly distraught teams' star players Neymar and Lionel Messi. The match was interrupted after only seven minutes, after Brazilian health officials stormed the pitch to remove three players from Argentina's team who they said failed to comply with coronavirus restrictions.

New Zealand's COVID exceptionalism risks unraveling

As New Zealand grapples to bring a Delta outbreak under control and to accelerate the vaccination rollout, social cohesion is vital for a successful elimination strategy. But strains on public consensus are beginning to show, with a less-than-ideal parliament, some pushback against lockdowns and agitation to "open up," writes Alexander Gillespie in The Conversation.

😷 During last year's nation-wide lockdown, the prime minister created the epidemic response committee. It reflected a government confident enough to be questioned in public through a parliamentary body it did not control. This time, the epidemic response committee was not resuscitated. Following a wave of criticism, the government floated a virtual option. Opposition parties rejected this, forcing the government to recall a truncated parliament with enhanced social distancing rules. As a result, very few politicians are in parliament.

📢 Dealing with protests outside parliament during this pandemic is equally difficult. The important point here is that people have rights, but these rights may be subject to reasonable limits. All New Zealanders have a right to peaceful assembly in public to protest, but this can be curtailed by conditions of where, when and how. Fundamentally, nobody has a right to public protest in the middle of a national lockdown.

💉 While Australia and other countries are now discussing how to adapt to an ongoing presence of COVID-19, accepting deaths and hospitalisations, New Zealand so far maintains elimination as a strategy "to stamp out the virus and keep our options open". Whatever vaccination target will be necessary, getting there from the current level of 21% of the population fully vaccinated will be a challenge. The government will likely need to use incentives and some degree of compulsion.

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According to a new report from the EU Tax Observatory, leading European banks such as Barclays and HSBC are booking 14% of their annual profits (around €20 billion) in tax havens. The banks deny the findings but the claims will nevertheless fuel those arguing that leading countries must be more aggressive in cracking down on tax avoidance.

Everyone is on the list.

— A Nicaraguan businessman whose family home was raided by the police told The New York Times amid a nationwide crackdown on political opponents and dissent by Nicaragua's president Daniel Ortega who's seeking to secure a fourth term. Since last June, seven candidates for November's presidential election and dozens of political activists and critics of the leader have been arrested.

✍️ Newsletter by Meike Eijsberg, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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