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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)

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Coronavirus Cases and Deaths Rise

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  • The new coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China has now killed at least 81 people and more than 2,700 cases have been detected worldwide. 
  • Most of the cases are in China, though low numbers have been found in other nations, including the United States.
  • Wuhan’s mayor has offered to resign in wake of criticism for the Chinese government’s response to the health crisis.
  • The United States, France, and Japan have all announced plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and bring them home on limited-capacity flights.

Rising Numbers

The coronavirus outbreak that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan significantly worsened over the weekend, bringing the death toll to at least 81 and the confirmed number of cases to over 2,700.

The majority of the cases have been found in China, but several have been detected in other nations across four continents, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and France.  

On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed three newly-detected cases of the novel coronavirus in Southern California and Arizona, bringing the overall number of infected people in the U.S. to five. The other cases were found last week in Washington and Illinois. 

“It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread,” the CDC wrote. 

“While this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time,” it added.

No deaths from the coronavirus have been reported outside of China. 

Chinese Government’s Response 

In efforts to control the outbreak of the novel virus, plans have been made to rapidly build a new hospital and travel bans have been imposed around the nation, affecting millions of people. 

As conditions have worsened, Chinese officials are facing criticism from people saying that their response to the outbreak was too slow.

Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, defended himself in an interview with the state broadcaster CCTV, saying that he had to wait for authorization from Beijing officials before he could make certain critical information public. 

Regardless of this point, Mayor Xianwang also offered to step down from his position and said that he and Ma Guoqiang, the city’s Communist Party secretary, will resign and take the blame if it will appease the public.

Xianwang’s comments were broadcasted the same day Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest ranking official, arrived in Wuhan to inspect regulation efforts of the disease. His visit is seen as a move to prove the central government’s adequate involvement with this crisis. 

In further attempts to impose the travel bans, the Chinese government extended the Lunar New Year holiday by three days. The weeklong celebration started on Friday and was supposed to end this Thursday, but the spreading virus threw a wrench in many people’s travel and celebration plans. Now employees won’t have to return to work until Feb. 3.

International Evacuation Plans

Despite China’s imposed travel bans, other nations have devised plans to evacuate their citizens from high-risk areas and bring them home. 

The U.S. Department of State announced its plans to bring select consulate staff members and other American citizens from Wuhan to San Francisco on a flight on Jan. 28. 

“This capacity is extremely limited and if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus,” the Department said.

France’s government is arranging similar plans to bring French nationals back from the Wuhan area via air travel. Once these passengers return, they will be required to spend a maximum of 14 days in quarantine.  

Japan also said they would be chartering at least one plane this week to bring citizens home from Wuhan.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (CBS)

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China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads

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  • Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people. 
  • More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
  • The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States. 
  • Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.

Race to Build Hospital

In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic. 

The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site. 

Wuhan authorities said the new hospital’s purpose is to “address the insufficiency of existing medical resources,” the Associated Press reported

China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.  

“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”

The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week. 

The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.

What is the Coronavirus?

The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.

Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.   

At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans. 

More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)

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Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom

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  • British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
  • The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
  • While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.

Brexit Becomes Law

After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.

In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.

The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.

On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline. 

Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.

When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU. 

Reaction to Brexit’s Passage

Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance. 

Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections. 

However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage. 

Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.

On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter. 

“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”

To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.

On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”

“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.

What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?

Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.

During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.

The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.

As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.

At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.

But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)

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