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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)

International

Indonesian President Delays Bill Outlawing Extramarital Sex

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  • The President of Indonesia tabled a vote on a proposed penal code that would outlaw sex outside of marriage. The legislation will now be pushed to a new parliament set to convene in October.
  • The vote was delayed after it received widespread backlash from legal experts, human rights activists, and Indonesians, many of whom believed it was an overextension of conservative Islamic policies.
  • The legislation included other provisions that would limit freedom of speech, reduce rights for religious minorities, and significantly restrict women’s reproductive rights.
  • Gay and lesbian sex would also be functionally criminalized under the new penal code, as gay marriage is not allowed in Indonesia.

Widodo Halts Vote

Indonesian President Joko Widodo delayed a vote on a controversial new penal code Friday that, among other things, would criminalize both gay and premarital sex.

The bill was expected to be passed by parliament as early as next week, but Widodo asked lawmakers to postpone the legislation following significant public outcry. The bill will now be held until a new parliament is seated in October.

“After hearing from various groups with objections to aspects of the law, I’ve decided that some of it needs further deliberation,” the president said in a press briefing, before adding that the bill needed further review.

If passed, the new penal code would be a massive overhaul to existing legal systems.

Provisions of the Law

One provision would have punished any instance of sex outside of marriage with six months to a year in jail as well as fines. Though not explicitly stated in the law, it would also effectively outlaw gay and lesbian sex entirely, because Indonesia does not allow same-sex marriages.

According to the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, a nongovernmental organization, millions of Indonesians could risk being jailed under the new law. 

Under another article, unmarried couples living together could face up to six months in prison and fines.

The code also included measures that would restrict women’s reproductive rights. Receiving an abortion outside of the exceptions of medical emergencies or rape could be punishable by a maximum of four years in prison.

The bill would additionally restrict access to contraceptives for minors, as well as impose penalties for promoting contraceptives.

Some proposed provisions would target religious minorities, while others would limit freedom of speech, such as prohibiting anyone from insulting the president, vice president, government, and state agencies.

Supporters

The new law was supported by conservative Islamic groups, who wish to see more sharia-like laws implemented in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

“Indonesia has social values, moral values, also cultural values that are different from those in Western countries,” said Arsul Sani, one of the lawmakers who supported the bill, and who belongs to one of the four Islamist parties in Indonesia’s parliament.

“The state must protect citizens from behavior that is contrary to the supreme precepts of God,” said Nasir Djamil, another parliamentarian who supported the bill from a different Islamic party.

Despite its reputation for being a south-east Asian democracy with relatively moderate Muslims populations and Islamic legal systems, Indonesia has seen a recent trend towards deeper religiosity and conservative Islamic policies, especially at the local level.

In some areas, local governments have enforced aspects of sharia law, such as requiring women to wear hijabs and adopting curfews for women unaccompanied by male relatives. 

Opponents

The government’s efforts to implement elements of sharia law at the national level with the proposed penal code have been troubling to Indonesia’s substantial Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist minority populations, as well as many others.

“If passed, the criminal code will confirm that Indonesia is now becoming an Islamic state,” Andreas Harsono, a senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch said on Twitter.

“Indonesia’s draft criminal code is disastrous not only for women and religious and gender minorities, but for all Indonesians,” Harsono said in a statement to the media. “The bill’s provisions censoring information about contraception could set back the progress Indonesia has made in recent years to dramatically reduce maternal deaths.”

Other experts echoed Harsono’s sentiment about the spread of Islamic conservativism.

“Across the board, this is a ratcheting up of conservatism. It’s extremely regressive,” said Tim Lindsey, the director of the University of Melbourne’s Center for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society.

Beyond legal experts and activists, a large number of Indonesian citizens also voiced their disapproval of the law.

According to Al Jazeera, an online petition for the bill the be thrown out received nearly half a million signatures, and hundreds of thousands of Indonesians voiced their opposition on social media. 

Some also argued that the ban on extramarital sex could discourage tourism and foreign investment, as the law would have applied to foreigners. 

This could significantly hurt Indonesia, especially at a time when President Widodo is trying to attract foreign investors and expand tourism to other parts of Indonesia beyond Bali, which is a popular spot for Westerners.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2018, travel and tourism composed 6% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and added 13 million jobs to the economy.

Foreign investors will also likely consider the penal code when deciding where to invest. Some international companies have also expressed concern over how the law would impact their employees in Indonesia.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The New York Times) (Reuters)

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International

Hundreds of Thousands March in Climate Strikes Around the World

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  • Student activists all over the world are skipping school to attend the global climate strike.
  • There are over 2,000 events planned in over 150 countries.
  • The demonstrations are inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, which encourages students to engage in climate change protests on Fridays.
  • Thunberg will be participating in New York City’s strike and will be in the city on Monday when the United Nations hosts the Climate Action Summit.

Protests Unfold Around the World

Student activists in every corner of the world are skipping school on Friday to participate in a global climate strike. 

From Bangkok to London and Jakarta to Toyko, hundreds of thousands of people are flooding city streets calling for action on climate change. While these demonstrations are mainly led and attended by students, activists of all ages have been encouraged to attend.

The protests are inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, which she began last year. Students in the movement have been skipping school on Fridays to call for global leaders to address the climate crisis. The Swedish teenager has become internationally recognized as the face of youth environmental activism. She is currently in New York City and scheduled to speak at the organized march there.

Over one million students in New York City were given permission to leave school in favor of the protests, so long as they had parental approval. Most marches in the United States are currently underway or just beginning right now, but countries across the globe have already seen a massive turnout. 

Reports say that over 2,000 rallies across 150 countries have been planned for Friday. Right now, most cities and countries do not have clear counts on how many people attended the protests. In Australia, reports estimate about 300,000 people turned out.

Around the world, students held signs that said things like “There Is No Planet B” and “Like the Oceans, We Rise.” 

Greta Thunberg to Attend Climate Action Summit

These demonstrations precede the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit on Monday. The summit will be held in the U.N.’s capital, New York City, prompting Thunberg’s presence in the Big Apple. Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic for 15 days on a zero-carbon emissions yacht to attend the event. 

“This is not the time and place for dreams, this is the time to wake up,” she said speaking to Congress on Thursday. 

“This is the moment in history we need to be wide awake. Dreams cannot stand in the way of telling it like it is, especially not now.”

See what others are saying: (Aljazeera) (The Guardian) (Vox)

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Three Instances of Justin Trudeau in Blackface and Brownface Surface

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  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Wednesday after TIME published a picture of him from 2001 in brownface.
  • While apologizing, he also admitted to wearing blackface during a high school talent show. Soon after, the second picture in question circulated around the internet.
  • The next day, Global News published a video of a third incident that appeared to show the prime minister in blackface again.
  • This news is expected to significantly hurt Trudeau in Canada’s election next month, which is already expected to be a close call for Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

Brownface Photo Surfaces

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing backlash after three separate instances of the Liberal Party leader in brown and blackface surfaced this week.

The incident first came to light on Wednesday, when TIME published a photo of Trudeau wearing brownface. According to TIME, the photo was taken in 2001 at an “Arabian Nights” themed gala at the private school where he was teaching at the time.

Source: TIME

The outlet reported that they had been given a copy of the school’s yearbook with the photo earlier this month by a businessman named Michael Adamson, who “first saw the photograph in July and felt it should be made public.”

Shortly after the story broke, Trudeau responded in a press conference, where he confirmed that the story was true.

“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better, but I didn’t, and I’m really sorry,” the prime minister said. “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.” 

“I have worked all my life to try and create opportunities for people, to fight against racism and intolerance. And I can just stand here and say that I made a mistake when I was younger and I wish I hadn’t,” he continued.

When asked by a reporter if that instance was the only time in his life he had done black or brownface, Trudeau admitted that he had.

“When I was in high school I dressed up at a talent show and sang ‘Day O.’ With makeup on,” he said.

After that new admission, the picture in question circulated around the internet.

Source: TIME

Third Blackface Instance Exposed

Towards the end of the news conference, a reporter asked Trudeau if he would like to speak to any other instances where he had engaged in racism.

“Do you want to tell Canadian’s about any other instances where you were concerned that you were racist? Or that you had blackface or brownface on?” the reporter asked.

“I think its been plenty,” Trudeau responded, seemingly to the first part of the question. “The fact of the matter is that I’ve always, and you’ll know this, been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate. But these are the situations that I regret deeply.”

“Is it the only two or are there more?” the reporter clarified.

“These are the situations that I regret deeply,” the prime minister repeated.

However, on Thursday morning, the Canadian outlet Global News published a video that appeared to show Trudeau wearing black makeup on his face and all over his body while sticking out his tongue and making faces.

Global News reported that they had received the video from a source in the Conservative Party earlier this week, but had to verify the video before publishing it.

“A senior member of the Liberal campaign confirmed it was Trudeau early Thursday morning but would not comment further,” the outlet reported, also noting that the video was taken sometime in the 1990s.

Trudeau addressed the situation again in a longer press briefing Thursday afternoon, where he apologized directly to people of color in Canada.

“What I did hurt them, hurt people who shouldn’t have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity. This is something that I deeply, deeply regret,” he said.

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context, of the circumstances, is always unacceptable, because of the racist history of blackface. I should have understood that then, and I never should have done it,” he added.

The prime minister also said that he did not remember any other times that he did blackface or brownface when asked by a reporter.

Response

A number of politicians and party leaders in Canada responded to the incident after TIME published the photo. 

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, who is Sikh, addressed the photos in an interview Wednesday.

“It’s troubling, I mean, it’s really insulting,” he said. “Anytime we hear examples of blackface or brownface it’s really, it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are.”

“I think he needs to answer for it. I think he’s got to answer the question why he did that, and what does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the color of their skin face challenges, barriers, and obstacles in their life,” he added. 

The leader of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May, also chimed in, saying in a tweet that she was “deeply shocked by the racism shown in the photograph of Justin Trudeau.”

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, who is also Trudeau’s main opponent responded in a video of his own.

“Like all Canadians, I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau’s actions this evening,” the opposition leader said.

“Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism, it was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. And what Canadian’s saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity, and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”

However, some have pointed out that Scheer has recently rejected calls for him to kick out members of his own party for making racist or homophobic comments. Earlier this week, he even said he would stand by candidates who had made offensive comments in the past as long as they apologized.

“As long as someone takes responsibility for what they’ve said, and addresses the fact that in 2019 some things that may have been said in the past are inappropriate today, that if anything that they’ve ever said in the past caused any type of hurt or disrespect to one community or another and have apologized for that, I accept that,” he said. 

“You know, I accept the fact that people can make mistakes in the past.”

Upcoming Election

This incident could not come at a worse time for Trudeau, who faces an already contentious election in one month.

Trudeau’s re-election prospects dipped earlier this year after it was revealed that his former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, an indigenous woman, claimed that the prime minister and an aide pressured her to reach a settlement in a criminal case against the Canadian-based engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin.

The criminal case in question would have prevented SNC from getting lucrative government contracts, and Trudeau argued that settling the case would save thousands of jobs.

However, many saw the incident as a prime minister, a self-described feminist who claimed to champion indigenous rights, directing his mostly male aides to bully an indigenous woman to protect a corporation that financially benefited the Liberal Party in Quebec, where Trudeau is from.

Now, experts believe that this new blackface scandal could seriously hurt Trudeau’s chances of re-election.

The prime minister fell drastically in the polls after Canada’s ethics commissioner found that he had broken the country’s conflict-of-interest law in the SNC debacle.

Even before the blackface controversy broke on Wednesday, the Conservative and Liberal parties were polling neck and neck at 34.4% and 34.2%, according to the CBC News poll tracker, which aggregates all of the other public polls.

In an already close race, experts are now saying this blackface revelation could pull not only more progressive voters away from the Liberal Party, but also centrist voters.

Canada also has a large population of people who are of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent. Those demographics have been a key source of support for the Liberal Party and Trudeau in the past, specifically in areas around Toronto, which are seen as key electoral battlegrounds for the Liberals.

With this recent controversy, it is unclear where those voter bases, which could be essential to giving Trudeau the edge he needs to be re-elected, will cast their votes next month.

See what others are saying: (TIME) (CBC) (The Guardian)

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