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Russian Agent Maria Butina Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison

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  • Maria Butina, a Russian operative who conspired to gain access to conservative circles in the U.S. to advance Russian interests, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday.
  • In December, Butina pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. while plotting an influence campaign with a Russian government official that involved infiltrating the NRA and other influential conservative groups.
  • Butina has been in jail since her arrest in July and will receive credit for the 9 months she already served, she will be deported back to Russia once her term is complete.

Maria Butina Sentenced in Federal Court

Russia national Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for conspiring to infiltrate U.S. conservative political circles to promote Russian interests.

Butina pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Department of Justice. She admitted to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative organizations to open backchannel lines of communication.

She also admitted to using her contacts in conservative political circles at the National Rifle Association and at the National Prayer Breakfast to sway U.S. relations with Russia, as part of a broader Russian-influence campaign.

Butina’s efforts started in 2015 and continued until she was arrested and detained in July of 2018. She has been incarcerated since her arrest and will receive credit for the nine months she has already served. Once her sentence is complete, she will be granted her request to be deported to Russia.

The Defense

Before receiving her sentence, Butina said that she never intended on causing harm. She said she came to the U.S. to receive a graduate degree from American University in Washington D.C. because she “wanted a future career in the international policy.”

“At the same time, I wished to mend relations while improving my own resume,” Butina continued, “So I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country I grew to love.”

Butina claimed that if she had known she needed to register as a foreign agent with the government, she would have done so.

“Though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret these events,” Butina said. “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.”

Butina’s lawyers also emphasized these points, describing her activities as “friendship citizen diplomacy” rather than a “nefarious” campaign to infiltrate conservative organizations to advance Russian political interests.

The Prosecution  

On the other side, the prosecution argued that while Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense, she still gathered sensitive information by gaining access to people in the highest places at some of the most influential conservative organizations.

“The value of this information to the Russian Federation is immense,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Kenerson, the lead prosecutor for the case. “Such operations can cause great damage to our national security by giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction.”

The prosecution also claimed that Republican operative Paul Erickson, who was also Butina’s boyfriend, connected her with prominent conservatives. The information she received from those individuals, as well as Erickson, was reported back to Russian officials.

Prosecutors argued that Butina’s relationship with Erickson, who is identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court documents, was purely for political gain.

“For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors wrote last year. “Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”

Erickson has not been charged in Butina’s case so far, but he was indicted in February in an unrelated fraud scheme.

The Decision

The prosecution’s arguments were ultimately echoed by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who oversaw the case. While giving her sentence, Chutkan said Butina was indeed a legitimate graduate student, but concluded that “she was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system.”

“She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government,” said Chutkan, “Under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process.”

Chutkan described Butina’s networking with the NRA, efforts to arrange for NRA leadership to visit Russia, and other actions as explicit and intentional attempts to establish backchannel communication lines to promote Russian interests.

“The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,” Chutkan said. Chutkan also argued that while Butina’s actions “might” have been legal if she had registered as an agent for the Russian government, the fact that she did not disclose this information was exactly the reason why her actions “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy.”

Her failure to register, Chutkan asserted, was so harmful because it prevented the government, American University, the NRA, and other groups from understanding exactly what she was doing, and taking actions in response.

“Diplomacy Project”

In her plea papers, Butina stated that she conducted the infiltration campaign under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official and lifetime NRA member.

Butina called the plan “Diplomacy Project,” and described it as an effort to form relationships with people high-up in conservative organizations over the course of multiple years as a way of eventually reaching the Republican winner of the 2016 election.

Butina planned the strategy in March 2015 and intended on specifically targeting gun rights groups, citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party.

Ironically, Butina’s sentence comes on the same Donald Trump is attending to massive NRA conference in Indianapolis.

For two years, she attended conferences and events to meet with Republican presidential candidates and those close to them.

She went to NRA conventions, attended Donald Trump’s inaugural ball, organized “friendship dinners” with influential Americans, and arranged for a Russian delegation to attend the distinguished National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Butina accessed to those groups by creating a gun rights group in Russia and working as an interpreter for Torshin.

Butina’s sentence marks the first time a Russian national has been convicted for attempting to influence American policy before the 2016 election. However, her case was not handled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and she was not one of the 13 Russians named as part the indictments resulting from the Muller Report.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (NBC News)

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Lebanon’s Government Resigns Following Beirut Explosion Protests

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  • On Monday, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced that he and his cabinet were resigning following a weekend of huge protests in Beirut.
  • Thousands of people took to the streets, calling for the government to resign after an explosion last week killed 200 and injured over 6,000 others. The explosion was believed to have been caused by a chemical stockpile that the government knew existed.
  • Protesters threw rocks and other projectiles, clashing violently with police who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The protesters view the explosion as symbolic of years of government corruption, but many experts say the resignations will do little to change the country’s political system without widespread reforms.

Lebanese Government Steps Down

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced Monday that his government was resigning following the massive explosion that shook the capital city of Beirut last week.

Speaking in a televised statement, Diab said that the explosion was the result of “endemic corruption” and that he was “heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people.” 

The explosion, which killed 200 people and injured 6,000 others, is believed to have been caused by a fire that set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port. It has since been confirmed that many government officials knew about the dangerous stockpile for years and did nothing to address it.

The move follows a weekend of protests, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to call for the government to resign. 

For many, the explosion was seen as yet another result of years of government corruption and mismanagement by the country’s ruling elite, who have been lining their own pockets while other people suffer. 

Even before the blast, Lebanon was experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades as well as surging coronavirus cases. Both factors contributed to an already heighten distrust in the government that has only been augmented by the explosion.

Protests Break Out

Those sentiments appeared to boil over as protests over the weekend rocked the capital.

Droves of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday, where some set up mock gallows and they hung cardboard cutouts of top politicians. Others chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” and “Revolution! Revolution!” as they marched in the streets.

Confrontations broke out between protesters and police after demonstrators threw rocks at security forces who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. There were also some reports of security forces firing live rounds and protesters throwing fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and other projectiles at police.

Fires burned in the streets and protesters stormed three government ministries, even taking over the Foreign Ministry for a few hours before the army reclaimed the building.

The anti-government protests continued Sunday, and again police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators who were blocking a road near Parliament. Lebanese TV footage also showed a fire breaking out at an entrance to Parliament Square as protesters tried to break into a sectioned-off area.

Also on Sunday, international leaders met at a virtual summit where they pledged $298 million to help Lebanon in the aftermath of the blast. According to reports, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that while the aid was unconditional and would be given out regardless of political or institutional reforms, other pledges for longer-term support would depend on government reforms.

Lebanese officials have said the explosion caused upwards of $15 billion in economic losses.

Next Steps

Despite the fact that the resignation of the cabinet appears to heed the protesters’ calls, experts have warned that the move will result in more short-term political instability, but it is unlikely to create any long-term change.

“Not only do we have an absence of government and a political vacuum, but we’re going to have a severe problem with the function of the state of Lebanon,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist at Lebanese American University in Beirut told the Wall Street Journal. “We are heading toward the unknown.”

While the ministers have resigned, they are not gone. Instead, they will create a caretaker government that will exist until a new one is established, allowing them to “form the backbone of a new administration,” as The Guardian explains.

According to reports, the protesters, who continued their demonstrations on Monday, did not widely cheer Diab’s announcement.

For them, this is more of the same. Diab and his cabinet had been the political figures ushered in after a similar wave of anti-government protests prompted the former prime minister to step down in October.

After months of haggling, Diab and his government assumed power in January. Eight months later, he now leaves his people even worse off than before.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian) (Al Jazeera)

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Hong Kong Crackdown: Police Arrest High-Profile Media Tycoon, Then Raid His Newspaper’s Office

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  • On Monday, Police in Hong Kong arrested billionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a long-time outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party. They also arrested his two sons and at least seven others the same day. 
  • All ten are accused of colluding with foreign forces, and under Hong Kong’s new national security law, they could face up to life in prison. 
  • Following those arrests, hundreds of Hong Kong police raided Lai’s newspaper, the pro-democracy Apple Daily, and rifled through documents before seizing 25 boxes of materials.
  • Also on Monday, China issued retaliatory sanctions against 11 U.S. citizens—including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Pat Toomey—though it is unclear what those sanctions entail.

Arrest of Jimmy Lai and Newsroom Police Raid

The Hong Kong police force used the city’s new national security law on Monday to make their most-high profile arrest yet under the legislation.

It began when police stormed the offices of Next Digital, a media company owned by billionaire activist Jimmy Lai. Lai is also known for being the publisher for the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy outlet that is one of the most-read newspapers in Hong Kong.

Photographs show officers escorting Lai outside of the offices and placing him in police vehicles. In addition to Lai, officers also arrested his two sons, as well as at least seven others. Four of those reportedly include senior executives with the Apple Daily. 

Following the arrests, more than 200 officers proceeded to search the Apple Daily’s newsroom. During that raid, which was streamed on Facebook Live by employees, officers reportedly rifled through reporters’ desks and papers, forced employees to show their ID badges, and told them to stop filming.

By the end of the search, police had confiscated more than 25 boxes of materials.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law—its mini-constitution—protects freedom of the press, but the raid immediately raised concerns that officers were seizing information critical of the Chinese Community Party. 

Later, police claimed they took care to protect those media freedoms and that reporters could “continue their work” after the raid; however, that claim has been disputed.

In fact, the Apple Daily outright refuted the claim that media freedoms were protected, saying on Twitter, “The Hong Kong Police Force have blatantly bypassed the law and abused their power, despite claims about acting according to the rules.”

“They have, for instance, ignored the limitation of the search warrant and rifled through news materials, as well as restricting press members from reporting and obstructing a news organization from operating.”

“The regime believes that we will be silenced by intimidation and harassment, and that they can take an international city down the path of autocracy,” the outlet added. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread, but our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press.” 

Police later barred several major news outlets, including Reuters and the Associated Press, from attending a press conference regarding the raid.

This is not the first series of arrests that police have made under the national security law. After it went into effect on June 30, several people were arrested during street protests. On July 29, four students in Hong Kong were arrested for “secession” over social media posts they made.

Reportedly, those students range from age 21 to as young as 16.

Alongside those arrests, police also seized  their computers, phones, and other documents.

In a press conference, Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah said that all four students are believed to be part of an online group that pledged to fight for Hong Kong independence.

“We have to enforce the laws even if the crimes are committed on the internet,” he said. “Don’t think you can escape from the responsibility in cyberspace and commit crimes.”

Hong Kong Elections Postponed

It’s also not just arrests that threaten basic human freedoms in the city. On July 31, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed this year’s upcoming elections for a full year.

Lam has justified the move by saying that this was in response to a resurgence in COVID-19 cases. She called the decision “the most difficult one I have had to make in the past seven months.”

Despite this, a number of pro-democracy lawmakers have accused China of trying to delay the election. That’s because many believed pro-democracy candidates had a strong chance to finally win a majority in the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council. 

Stoking similar criticism of trying to stamp out a democratic win, just two days prior to postponing the elections, the Hong Kong government announced that 12 pro-democracy candidates running for seats in the city’s legislature had been barred.

The government has argued that those candidates can’t stand because they would be unable to uphold the Basic Law of Hong Kong based on their positions on issues, such as advocating for democratic reforms and objecting to the national security law.

Those candidates include Joshua Wong and Gwyneth Ho, who were both front-runners in an unofficial democratic primary held earlier in July. Notably, that list also includes four incumbents—right, four already-sitting lawmakers who are up for re-election.

U.S. Sanctions and Chinese Retaliation

As China implements the new law, a number of countries have stepped in to sanction Beijing. 

For example, in the United States, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday that imposes sanctions on 11 Hong Kong officials—including Lam, as well as the city’s current and former police chiefs. 

Trump’s order freezes any U.S. assets owned by those people and bars any Americans from doing business with them. 

That said, the U.S. and China have been playing a game of back-and-forth tag with sanctions for over a year. Thus, it came as little surprise that China retaliated on Monday by slapping sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens.

That list includes executives with human rights activist groups, as well as several lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Tom Cotton (R-Ar.), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Unlike the U.S. sanctions, it’s unclear what those sanctions entail. Announcing the sanction, the deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the U.S. for involving itself in what he called domestic affairs.

“The [sanctions] by the US side are an overt interference in Hong Kong affairs and gross interference in China’s domestic affairs…” Deputy Director Zhao Lijian said. “The Chinese side resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this.”

“Retaliate all you want,” Hawley responded on Twitter. “I’m not backing down.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (CNBC) (South China Morning Post)

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2,700 Tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate Stash Linked to Beirut Explosion

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  • Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut has left at least 135 dead and 5,000 injured.
  • The tragedy is suspected to have been caused by a detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored in a warehouse.
  • Officials at the port are currently set to be placed under house arrest pending an investigation into the cause of the explosion. Records show officials knew that the nitrate was there and that it was dangerous but still did nothing for years.
  • The damage is severe, with 300,000 people being displaced and damage potentially costing $5 billion.

What We Know

Lebanese officials are looking for answers after a massive explosion in Beirut killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000 on Tuesday.

“There are no words to describe the catastrophe,” President Michel Aoun said of the tragedy. 

Lebanon’s Interior Minister told a local television station that right now, it appears that the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizer and bombs, had been seized from a cargo ship and was being improperly stored in a warehouse. Records show that officials knew the nitrate was being stored there and was dangerous but failed to act. 

Current reports indicate that a fire at a nearby warehouse may have ignited the nitrate, but the cause of the fire is unknown. An investigation into the explosion is still underway. 

“As head of the government, I will not relax until we find the responsible party for what happened, hold it accountable and apply the most serious punishments against it,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a statement. 

Sources told Aljazeera that the country’s cabinet is going to place port officials under house arrest pending the investigation. It is unclear how many officials this will involve or what their roles at the port were.

The State of Lebanon

The damage the blast has caused is catastrophic, leaving an estimated 300,000 people displaced. The governor of Beirut estimates that the country could be facing between $3-5 billion dollars in damage. 

The explosion was strong enough to be felt in Cyprus, which is around 150 miles away from Beirut. Several hospitals were also damaged to the point that they could not take in new patients. Many of those hospitals were already treating COVID-19 patients as the country is dealing with a spike in cases. 

Just last week, the country reimposed coronavirus lockdowns because of a case surge. Hospitals are already struggling to handle the pandemic and lack personal protective equipment and other tools to combat it. The new influx of injured people from the explosion is now putting hospitals at capacity.

This comes at a time of dire economic hardship for Lebanon as well. The country currently has an unemployment rate of 33% and 45% of the country living below the poverty line, according to Business Insider. Tensions with the government and leadership are already high because of this.

“Many blame the ruling elite who have dominated politics for years and amassed their own wealth while failing to carry out the sweeping reforms necessary to solve the country’s problems,” BBC News explained. “People have to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water and limited public healthcare.”

Recovery Efforts

Recovery efforts are underway.  The Lebanon Red Cross has set up first-aid stations to help people with non-critical injuries and has sent in ambulances and Emergency Medical Technicians. 

Countries across the globe are also pitching in. French president Emmanuel Macron will be going to Lebanon himself, while hise country is sending medical equipment, rescue teams, and other aid. The President of the European Council also said that the EU is ready to help however they can..

Israel, Jordan, Russia and Egypt are among the many other countries that have pledged or already sent assistance. President Donald Trump also said that United States is ready to help and called the explosion a “terrible attack.” However, at this time, officials have not called this an attack. 

Celebrities are also getting involved in recovery efforts. Singer Dua Lipa has been sharing donation links and news articles on Instagram and is encouraging her followers to help however they can.

Photo via Instagram @DuaLipa

“Please if you are able and healthy to donate blood please do!!!” she wrote. “Beirut needs your help. There are people in critical conditions!”

Pop star Ariana Grande also tweeted out several links for donations and sent her condolences to the country. 

Likewise, model Bella Hadid shared information about the blast and encouraged people to donate money or blood if possible. 

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Reuters) (Aljazeera)

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