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Russian Firm Ran Extensive Disinformation Campaign in Sudan

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  • A Russian company linked to an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin launched an extensive campaign to spread misinformation and encourage violence against anti-government protestors in Sudan.
  • Russia has economic and military interests in Sudan, which is a key foothold for them in Africa.
  • The Kremlin also had close ties to former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown by a military coup on April 11.

Sudan Protest Timeline

A Russian company connected to an oligarch with ties to the Kremlin developed a strategy to stop anti-government protests in Sudan through disseminating disinformation and advocating for violence, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

In December, anti-government protests broke out all across Sudan over steep price hikes and shortages. The demonstrators initially called for economic reforms, but quickly shifted to calls for the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, to step down.

The protests continued over the next few months. In response, security forces launched a violent crackdown that killed dozens of people and led to thousands of arrests.

Then, towards the end of February, al-Bashir escalated these efforts. He declared a state of emergency and banned all unauthorized gathering. He also dissolved the federal and provincial governments to install security forces, essentially giving them a blank check to end the protests at all costs. After the state of emergency was declared, the protests slowed, but they did not stop.

However, the protests gained momentum again in April after the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had held power for 20 years, resigned following similar demonstrations in his country. The Sudanese protests reached a tipping point on April 6, when demonstrators staged a huge multi-day protest outside the military’s headquarters, which is near the presidential residence in the capital city Khartoum.

Again, these protestors were met with violence and arrests from security forces, but the sit-in at military headquarters worked.

On April 11, al-Bashir was removed from power by a military coup and arrested. A military council was installed to oversee a transition of power that the military says will last at most two years. Demonstrators have demanded that the military ruler hand over power to a civilian-led government immediately.

The Russian Campaign

The documents reviewed by CNN shed light on the extent of Russian involvement in al-Bashir’s violent crackdown.

CNN reported that they received the documents from a London-based firm called the Dossier Center and that they included several thousand letters and internal company communications. The documents originate from a Russian-based company called M-Invest that has an office in Khartoum.

According to those documents, M-Invest drew up plans to “discredit and suppress” the protests in Sudan as part of an effort to keep al-Bashir in power. This effort included: “spreading misinformation on social media, blaming Israel for fomenting the unrest, and even carrying out public executions to make an example of ‘looters,’” according to CNN.

CNN stated that the documents were credible and consistent with witnesses who have said they saw Russian “observers” at recent protests. They also said that multiple government and military sources in Khartoum have confirmed to CNN that al-Bashir’s government had received the plans and began to act on them before he was ousted.

One document from January suggested creating fake evidence “of arson by protesters against mosques, hospitals and nurseries, [and] stealing grain from the public store.”  It also proposed portraying the demonstrators as “enemies of Islam and traditional values”— which is the majority religion in Sundan– by planting LGBT flags around them.

Source: CNN

Other recommendations from M-Invest found in the documents included arresting protest leaders the day before demonstrations were set to occur, creating social media teams and accounts to attack the protests, and spreading disinformation saying that demonstrators were being paid to protest.

M-Invest even went as far as advocating for “public executions of looters and other spectacular events to distract the protest-minded audience.”

Ties to Putin & The Russian Government

The documents did not find that Russian security agencies were directly involved in the campaign, but the implicit connections between M-Invest and the Russian government are significant.

The Russian oligarch tied to M-Invest, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is known as “Putin’s Chef” because he held catering contracts with the Krelim. It is unclear exactly how Prigozhin is tied to M-Invest, with some reports saying he is the founder, while others have said the company represents his interests.

What is clear is his involvement in the campaign against the protests. CNN specifically referenced two letters from Prigozhin regarding the protests. The first letter, from March 17, stated that the Sudanese government’s “inaction” to stop the protests had “provoked the intensification of the crisis.”

Source: CNN

In the second letter, from April 6, praised Prigozhin praised al-Bashir as a “wise and far-sighted leader.”

Additionally, M-Invest’s relationship with Sudan goes back farther than just the protests. According to CNN, a letter from June 2018 written by M-Invest on behalf of Sudan’s Military Industrial Corporation to push closer military links with Russia was sent to the chief of the Russian armed forces.

Source: CNN

CNN also saw a contract between M-Invest and the Russian Defense Ministry for the use of transport aircraft. One of those planes was known to have been used by al-Bashir.

In addition to his ties to Sudan, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians charged in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Prigozhin has been accused of financing and directing efforts by the Russian firm Internet Research Agency, which was one of the main Russian firms that used fake social media accounts to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the 2016 election. He has denied any involvement in the election or any connection to the Internet Research Agency.

Why Did Russia Do It?

Russia’s keen interest in Sudan stems from its geographic location. Sudan is a key place for Russia to spread its influence in Africa. Russia currently has a mix of private and state interests in Sudan that benefit both oligarchs and the Russian government. These interests give Russia a strategic foothold in the region.

Additionally, Russia has been considering developing a naval base at Port Sudan in order to counter recent efforts by both the United States and China to establish a military presence in the region– another fact that was confirmed in the Dossier documents.

Over the years, al-Bashir pursued a close relationship with the Kremlin. He first visited Moscow in 2017, and Russia also supplied fighter jets to Sudan right before that meeting.

Russia has placed a big bet on al-Bashir, which meant they had a vested interest in keeping him installed as the president. When anti-regime protests started gaining momentum, Russia’s foothold and interests in the country, and thus in the region as a whole, were threatened.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

International

Israel Relaxes Abortion Restrictions in Response to U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

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The reforms follow similar moves by France and Germany as leaders across the political spectrum denounce the court’s decision.


Health Minister Makes Announcement

Israel is easing access to abortion in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, Nitzan Horowitz, the country’s health minister and head of the small left-wing Meretz party, announced Monday.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s move to deny a woman the right to abortion is a dark move,” he said in the announcement, “oppressing women and returning the leader of the free and liberal world a hundred years backward.”

The new rules, approved by a majority in the parliamentary committee, grant women access to abortion pills through the universal health system. Women will be able to obtain the pills at local health centers rather than only hospitals and surgical clinics.

The new policy also removes the decades-old requirement for women to physically appear before a special committee that must grant approval to terminate a pregnancy.

While women will still need to get approval, the process will become digitized, the application form will be simplified, and the requirement to meet a social worker will become optional.

The committee will only conduct hearings in the rare case it initially denies the abortion procedure.

Israel’s 1977 abortion law stipulates four criteria for termination of pregnancy: If the woman is under 18 or over 40, if the fetus is in danger, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, or an “illicit union,” including extramarital affairs, and if the woman’s mental or physical health is at risk.

All of the changes will take effect over the next three months.

The World Reacts

Politicians across the political spectrum from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision since it was announced Friday.

On Saturday, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed support for a bill proposed by parliament that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the country’s constitution.

“For all women, for human rights, we must set this gain in stone,” she wrote on Twitter. “Parliament must be able to unite overwhelmingly over this text.”

Germany scrapped a Nazi-era law prohibiting the promotion of abortion Friday, just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In Israel, abortion is a far less controversial issue than it is for Americans. Around 98% of people who apply for an abortion get one, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Part of the reason for Israel’s relatively easy access to abortion is that many residents interpret Jewish law to condone, or at least not prohibit, the procedure.

In the United States, several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee, Hillel International, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network have expressed opposition to the court ruling, and some Jews have protested it as a violation of their religious freedom.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (ABC News) (The Guardian)

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Flight Deporting Refugees From U.K. to Rwanda Canceled at Last Hour

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the U.K.’s asylum policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.


Saved By The Bell

The inaugural flight in the U.K. government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda was canceled about an hour and a half before it was supposed to take off Tuesday evening.

A last-minute legal intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) halted the flight. Tuesday’s flight originally included 37 people, but after a string of legal challenges that number dwindled to just seven.

In its ruling for one of the seven passengers, a 54-year-old Iraqi man, the court said he cannot be deported until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings.

Another asylum seeker, a 26-year-old Albanian man, told The Guardian he was in a “very bad mental state” and did not want to go to Rwanda, a country he knows nothing about.

“I was exploited by traffickers in Albania for six months,” he said. “They trafficked me to France. I did not know which country I was being taken to.”

A final domestic effort to block the flight in the Court of Appeals failed on Monday. The High Court will make a ruling on the asylum policy next month.

Britains Divided by Controversial Policy

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke to lawmakers after the flight was canceled, defending the asylum policy and saying preparations for the next flight will begin immediately.

“We cannot keep on spending nearly £5 million a day on accommodation including that of hotels,” she said. “We cannot accept this intolerable pressure on public services and local communities.”

“It makes us less safe as a nation because those who come here illegally do not have the regularized checks or even the regularized status, and because evil people-smuggling gangs use the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains to fund other appalling crimes that undermine the security of our country,” she continued.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, told CBC the policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.

“We believe that this is all wrong,” he said. “This is all wrong. I mean, saving people from dangerous journeys is great, is absolutely great. But is that the right way to do it? Is that the right, is that the real motivation for this deal to happen? I don’t think so. I think it’s… I don’t know what it is.”

An Iranian asylum seeker in a British detention center who was told to prepare for deportation before being granted a late reprieve was asked by ABC whether he ever thought the U.K. would send him to Africa.

“I thought in the U.K. there were human rights,” he said. “But so far I haven’t seen any evidence.”

The Conservative government’s plan was announced in April, when it said it would resettle some asylum seekers 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, where they can seek permanent refugee status, apply to settle there on other grounds, or seek asylum in a safe third country.

The scheme was meant to deter migrants from illegally smuggling themselves into the country by boat or truck.

Migrants have long made the dangerous journey from Northern France across the English Channel, with over 28,000 entering the U.K. in boats last year, up from around 8,500 the year prior. Dozens of people have died making the trek, including 27 who drowned last November when a single boat capsized.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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Ryanair Draws Outrage, Accusations of Racism After Making South Africans Take Test in Afrikaans

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Afrikaans, which is only spoken as a first language by around 13% of South Africa, has not been the country’s national language since apartheid came to an end in 1994.


Airline Won’t Explain Discrimination

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, has received widespread criticism and accusations of racism after it began requiring South African nationals to complete a test in Afrikaans to prove their passport isn’t fraudulent.

The airline told BBC the new policy was implemented because of “substantially increased cases of fraudulent South African passports being used to enter the U.K.”

Among other questions, the test asks passengers to name South Africa’s president, its capital city, and one national public holiday.

Ryanair has not said why it chose Afrikaans, the Dutch colonial language that many associate with white minority rule, for the test.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and Afrikaans ranks third for usage below Zulu and IsiXhosa. Only around 13% of South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language.

“They’re using this in a manner that is utterly absurd,” Conrad Steenkamp, CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council, told reporters. “Afrikaans, you have roughly 20% of the population of South Africa understand Afrikaans. But the rest don’t, so you’re sitting with roughly 50 million people who do not understand Afrikaans.”

“Ryanair should be careful,” he continued. “Language is a sensitive issue. They may well end up in front of the Human Rights Commission with this.”

Ryanair’s policy only applies to South African passengers flying to the United Kingdom from within Europe, since it does not fly out of South Africa.

The British government has said in a statement that it does not require the test.

Anyone who cannot complete the test will be blocked from traveling and given a refund.

Memories of Apartheid Resurface

“The question requiring a person to name a public holiday is particularly on the nose given that SA has a whole public holiday NEXT WEEK commemorating an historic protest that started in response to language-based discrimination,” one person tweeted.

South African citizen Dinesh Joseph told the BBC that he was “seething” with anger when asked to take the test.

“It was the language of apartheid,” he said, adding that it was a trigger for him.

Officials in the country were also surprised by Ryanair’s decision.

We are taken aback by the decision of this airline because the Department regularly communicates with all airlines to update them on how to validate South African passports, including the look and feel,” South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.

Any airline found to have flown a passenger with a fake passport to the U.K. faces a fine of £2,000 from authorities there. Ryanair has also not said whether it requires similar tests for any other nationalities.

Many people expressed outrage at Ryanair’s policy and some told stories of being declined service because they did not pass the test.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (BBC) (Al Jazeera)

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