Welcome to Friday, where the UK-China diplomatic clash escalates, Ethiopian refugee camps have been razed to the ground and French President Macron has no regrets (really?). We also have an exclusive Le Monde reportage on a secret global outfit that's infiltrating the data of jihadists.
• China-UK diplomatic dispute: China has issued sanctions on nine British individuals and four entities after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson voiced support for a British lawmaker who denounced China's "gross human rights violations."
• Norway remains AstraZeneca skeptic, U.S. vaccinations accelerate: Norway's public health institute announced it will continue to suspend the use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine by up to three weeks. Other European countries have resumed the use of the vaccine after it's safety was confirmed by the chief EU health body. Meanwhile, in his first press conference as president, Joe Biden doubles down on the impressively rapid U.S. vaccine rollout.
• Refugee camps in Ethiopia destroyed: An international aid team gained access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps, home to about 20,000 refugees, in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, only to find them completely destroyed, many burnt to the ground, and all "humanitarian facilities looted and vandalised."
• Projectile attack on oil terminal in Saudi Arabia: A drone attack sparked fire at an oil terminal in southern Saudi Arabia, following a recent increase in attacks by Yemen rebels in the long-simmering war in the region.
• Massive U.S. university sex abuse settlement: The University of Southern California has agreed to pay $1.1 billion to the 710 former students who were patients of the school gynecologist. George Tyndall is still awaiting trial on dozens of charges of sexual abuse.
• Freediver world record swim under ice: French freediver Arthur Guerin-Boeri set a world record for longest distance travelled under a sheet of ice, swimming 120 meters in Finland's Lake Sonnanen.
• Georgia man gets final paycheck in pennies: After leaving his job in November, a Georgia man's boss finally delivered the paycheck, in the form of 90,000 pennies covered in oil on his driveway and an explicit note atop the pile.
"With both feet on the ground," titles Argentine daily Pagina 12 as the country suspends flights from Brazil, Chile and Mexico, to prevent the spread of different strains of coronavirus from entering Argentina.
Exclusive: Inside the secret data cell infiltrating jihadist networks
Over the past several years, the United States and 27 other countries have been quietly collaborating on an enormous, secret data cell aimed at fighting jihadist groups all over the world, report Elise Vincent and Christophe Ayad in an exclusive investigation for Paris-based daily Le Monde.
Hidden from view in the quiet heat of Jordan, a vast data war is being waged. Ground zero is an American military base in the heart of the Hashemite kingdom, where for the past five years, a silent tracking system has been developed based on meticulous archives. The goal of this painstaking project? Identifying and consolidating the traces of every kind of jihadist fighter to pursue them in any way possible — including in the courts.
This extraordinary project was long run by the Pentagon and kept completely under wraps. While it remains a confidential operation to this day, it's been mentioned briefly by official sources across the Atlantic and by a few intelligence unit insiders in European media. Yet the undertaking was never disclosed to the public in detail. Today, Le Monde can reveal the origins and the modus operandi of what is known under the code name "Operation Gallant Phoenix" (OGP).
The information held in the OGP is no ordinary data. It's what specialists call "proof of war." Essentially, this refers to any trace left on the web, social media or the field by jihadist groups, or anything found on their person when they are taken prisoner. Initially focused on al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) soldiers in the Iraqi-Syrian zone, the Gallant Phoenix network now encompasses all of their affiliates, stretching across Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in Africa, particularly in the Sahel-Saharan strip.
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Peruvian farmers find (and destroy) 3,000-year-old mural
First, the good news: A major archeological find has been discovered in the north of Peru. A ceremonial mound or temple that's thought to date back some 3,200 years, the site also contains a mural with a vaguely visible image of a giant spider and, for reasons yet unknown, a spoon. Cool, right?
But alas, the good news could have been better. Unfortunately, the precious, pre-Hispanic structure has been partially destroyed — and not just by the passage of time.
The problem, it turns out, is that the find was first unearthed, inadvertently, by local laborers looking to extend the cropland where the ancient huaca (burial site) is located, smack dab in the middle of what's now an avocado grove, on one side, and a sugarcane field on the other, the Peruvian news agency Andina reports.
Using heavy machinery, the workers caused extensive damage to the site before realizing, finally, that they'd stumbled across a historical treasure.
Archeologists attribute the remains to the early phases of the Cupisnique culture, which flourished between 1,500 and 500 BC, according to daily La República. The structure may have been a temple to local water deities.
The Cupisnique culture belonged to Peru's Initial or Formative Period (1,800 to 200 BC) with sites in Virú and the Lambayeque region. Feren Castillo, a lecturer at the Trujillo National University, cites this as one of 400 such sites that farmers or land grabbers have spoiled or vandalized.
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
A Street Scene In Montmartre, a 1887 painting by Vincent Van Gogh, just sold at Sotheby's Paris after an eventful auction for 13.09 million euros — a record for a piece by the Dutch master. The piece, previously owned by a French family, had stayed behind closed doors for over a century.
I have no mea culpa to make, no remorse, no failure to declare.
— French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters he had no regrets about not putting the country into lockdown at the end of January, despite facing growing criticism from scientific and health authorities about the government's handling of the pandemic.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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