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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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Anti-Bullying Video Goes Viral and Starts Conversation Online

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  • A mother posted a video of her nine-year-old son Quaden Bayles, who was born with achondroplasia dwarfism, crying after being bullied in school and expressing suicidal thoughts. 
  • Many stars, like Hugh Jackman, rallied behind the child and expressed support for him. Comedian Brad Williams set up a GoFundMe to help both him and anti-bullying charities.
  • While many supported Quaden, others took to debunked conspiracy theories online about his age. Some believed Quaden’s mother was exploiting him for online attention.
  • In addition to the many anti-bullying messages being spread online, the story also started a conversation about whether or not it is okay to for parents to share videos of their kids on social media, especially ones that show kids in such a vulnerable state.

Video Goes Viral

After a mother took a now-viral video of her son after he was bullied at school, conversations about bullying and child privacy lit up social media sites. 

Yarraka Bayles posted the video of her nine-year-old son Quaden to Facebook, where it gained online traction before being picked up by news.com.au, an Australian news site. Quaden was born with achondroplasia dwarfism and regularly gets bullied at school and in other public spaces. 

The video, which may be hard to watch for viewers sensitive to content about bullying and suicide, shows Quaden in the car crying, expressing suicidal thoughts. His mom suggests that he actually has attempted suicide and urges parents to educate their children about the harmful consequences bullying has on children like her son.

Support for Quaden

Many celebrities spoke out in support of Quaden. Academy Award-nominated actor Hugh Jackman shared a video on Twitter telling him “you got a friend in me.”

So everyone, let’s please be kind to each other, bullying is not okay,” the Wolverine star added. 

Country-pop singer Kacey Musgraves and Walking Dead actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan also shared sympathy and words of encouragement on Twitter.

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Brad Williams, a comedian who has the same form of dwarfism as Quaden, started a GoFundMe for the Bayles family. 

“I’m setting up this GoFundMe to let Quaden know that bullying will not be tolerated, and that he is a wonderful human being who deserves joy,” he wrote. “I want to fly Quaden and his mother to America, get them a nice hotel, and bring them to Disneyland.”

“This isn’t just for Quaden, this is for anyone who has been bullied in their lives and told they weren’t good enough,” Williams added. “Let’s show Quaden and others, that there is good in the world and they are worthy of it.”

As of Monday morning, the GoFundMe had well exceeded the $10,000 goal and raised close to $470,000 from over 20,000 donors. Williams says that the excess money will go to anti-bullying charities. 

Conspiracy Theories 

Along with sympathy for Quaden came Internet users spreading conspiracy theories. Some alleged that he was not nine-years-old, but was actually an 18-year-old actor. They claimed the video was part of a scam.

Others also shared videos where it appears Quaden is showing off money and other expensive looking things. They implied that he came from money and was not being bullied. 

The theory that he is an actor scamming people for money is not true, as several reports have confirmed that he is nine-years-old. He has appeared on news segments with his mother promoting awareness for dwarfism in the past. 

Those who claim to know the family maintain that they are honest. 

Rapper Cardi B posted an Instagram Live video defending Quaden.

“I really don’t think that he’s lying on his age,” she said. “And just because there’s videos of him flossing money and acting all gangsta and acting all cool and everything, it doesn’t mean that kids do not pick on him. Come on now.” 

Is it Okay to Share Vulnerable Videos of Your Kids Online?

Still, some questioned Yarraka’s intentions in posting the video, thinking that she could have been exploiting her son’s condition and situation. She has actually since deleted the video from her Facebook page and removed her Instagram account, as well as Quaden’s, from the site.

Rogue Rocket spoke to author and motivational speaker Brandon Farbstein, who said he could specifically relate to Quaden’s pain, having dwarfism himself. He thinks that even though Yarraka may have had good intentions, the video was still counter-productive.

“She wants to do absolutely everything and anything she can to not only make this better but, she says, to try and raise awareness for the situation,” he said. “I personally don’t believe this is the way to do it. I believe that it is kind of digital exploitation of his, like I mentioned, darkest moment.”

Journalist and historian David Perry wrote an editorial for CNN saying that this video highlights huge problems we face in the digital age when it comes to the privacy of children online. Perry believed that Yarraka did this out of love, but should have refrained from sharing this vulnerable moment online.

“However loving the intention behind posting this video was (and I can well understand this mother’s desperation), the fact is that for the rest of the boy’s life his name will likely always be associated with it,” Perry wrote. “What’s more, the viral video is likely to encourage other parents to try to emulate it, continuing to break down the privacy rights of children.”

“Remember that your kids are going to grow up. They will Google their names,” Perry added. “You want them to be happy with what they find. So please stop sharing photos and videos of your child’s worst moments on the internet.”

Farbstein echoed that this video will now follow Quaden from places like school, to his first date, to his first job. He thinks that instead of a video like this, people who want to help kids in Quaden’s situation should turn to the people and places around them. 

“Start with your own community, whether you’re in school, you are part of a company, a religious institution, whatever it is, see what they’re doing to prevent bullying,” Farbstein said. “Using what you’ve been given to do what you can is the most that all of us can do.”

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (People Magazine) (Insider)

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Protesters Storm Latin America’s Largest Music Festival in Chile Over Economic Inequality

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  • On Sunday, Chile hosted Viña 2020, a yearly event that is Latin America’s largest music festival.
  • Before it began, protesters stormed the area near the festival, looting businesses and trying to storm a hotel where many of the performers were staying.
  • The protesters’ actions briefly delayed the concert before Ricky Martin, who was not scheduled to open the show, took the stage.
  • Sunday’s protest was a result of a series of protests that have been raging since October and that have claimed the lives of 31 people.

Music Festival Protests

Thousands of protesters and police clashed outside of Latin America’s largest music festival on Sunday night in a protest over economic inequality in Chile.

The festival, commonly known as Viña 2020, took place in the seaside city of Viña del Mar and is one of the most-watched television events each year in Chile; however, Sunday evening’s protests were fueled by months of unrest over the rising cost of living prices.

As the event began, fans at the concert already faced increased security measures, including metal detectors, turnstiles, and high barriers.

Nonetheless, those measures did not stop people from protesting outside of the event or from trying to enter the festival grounds. After realizing they could not break in, many then resorted to attacking shops and the hotel where many of the performers for the festival had been staying.

According to the BBC, about 150 masked individuals set at least seven cars on fire in front of the O’Higgins Hotel. They then tried to get in the hotel, but hotel staff fought them off with fire extinguishers.

Protesters also clashed with police, who threw tear gas. Reportedly, tear gas then drifted into the hotel, forcing some guests to flee. Around 8 p.m., the hotel began to evacuate guests.

Around the same time, police began to deploy water cannons.

Despite not breaking into the actual festival grounds, the protests at the hotel ended up delaying the concert because the festival’s opening acts were caught up in those evacuations. 

After the hotel, protesters then moved to municipal offices. There, they reportedly smashed windows, broke down doors and looted shops. They also targeted two car dealerships and set more cars on fire.

One video shows protesters at one of those dealerships driving a car out of a second-story window and flipping it.

By the end of the night, 15 people had been arrested and 23 officers had been injured.

Back on stage at Viña 2020, headliner Ricky Martin opened the show by telling Chileans that it’s “important to let the leaders of our countries know what we need, provided we do so in an orderly manner.”

Martin also told the crowd and viewers that he was “with you Chile, never silent, always with love and peace.”

What Has the Reaction to These Protests Been?

Several politicians have since denounced the protests, with the region’s governor, Jorge Martínez, calling protesters part of “radical groups which are very much in the minority.”

“They want anarchy, they want disorder and violence,” he added.

Viña del Mar’s mayor, Virginia Reginato criticized the protesters’ actions, saying, “You can have demonstrations but this is criminal and will be treated as such.”

Monday morning, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera called for Chileans to “live in peace.”

What’s Next?

Piñera’s call for peace is especially relevant because the government is expecting a fresh wave of protests in March.

Those will likely come despite Piñera’s attempts to try to stop the protests. In November, after the Chilean government agreed to hold a national referendum to change Chile’s constitution, Piñera signed off on the measure.

Currently, Chile’s constitution still dates back to the time of the country’s military rule in the 70’s and 80’s.

While that referendum is scheduled to be held in April, its announcement has done little to please a nation that is calling for more than just a change to the constitution. In fact, many have said they feel like their government isn’t listening to them.

How Did These Protests Start?

The protests began in October when subway fares in Chile’s capital, Santiago, increased. Following that move, hundreds of college students swarmed subway stations and hopped turnstiles to protest the hike.

From there, the protests only got worse. While they started over the subway fare hike, they quickly became about a whole host of other issues, including healthcare, education, and many utilities like gas and electricity, which have also seen rising costs.

At the same time, many poor and middle-class families had not seen wage increases. 

In October, Chile President, Sebastián Piñera, declared a state emergency in multiple cities. He then placed the city under curfew and placed the military in charge of the city’s security. 

Later that same month, Piñera reversed the fare hike, but the move did little to stop the protests, which have now morphed into an all-encompassing public censure on rising living costs in Chile.

Since October, 31 people have been arrested, with thousands more injured and arrested.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (US News & World Report) (Jakarta Post)

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Cambodian PM Orders Action Against Women For Revealing Clothing

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  • Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for authoritative action to be taken against women who wear revealing clothing in online posts. 
  • He said that these posts are offensive to Cambodian culture and said this behavior contributes to sexual violence in the country.
  • Several rights groups have condemned Hun Sen’s comments, arguing that the women have not actually broken any laws and that he is perpetuating the problem of sexual violence by blaming victims.

Controversial Remarks

In a speech given on Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities to take action against women who wear revealing clothing in Facebook Live streams. 

Hun Sen was addressing the Cambodian National Council for Women when he made his remarks. He said that these fashion choices are offensive to Cambodian culture and values and that this kind of behavior is to blame for sexual violence in the country. It is a popular trend for women across the country to wear revealing clothing to sell items like clothes and beauty products online, according to Reuters.

“Go to their places and order them to stop live-streaming until they change to proper clothes,” Hun Sen said on Monday. 

The prime minister also seemed to suggest that these women will be tracked down through their online activity when he ordered authorities to locate and then “educate” them.  

On Wednesday, police in Phnom Penh posted a video to Facebook of a young woman apologizing for the clothing she wears during her online streams upon being brought into their station. In the caption, the police wrote that the woman’s frequent posting in provocative clothing marred the customs and traditions of Cambodian women. 

The police commissionary posted later in the day that shortly after her release, the woman had posted another revealing image online. On their Facebook page, they wrote that she had been arrested and brought in again for pornography charges. 

“When we educate them and they still do not listen, we will implement the law,” a spokesman for the Cambodian National Police told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many expect women in Cambodia to be quiet and submissive, an expectation that stems from an oppressive conduct code for women called the Chbab Srey that was part of school curricula until 2007.  

Backlash to the Crackdown

Upon news of the “education” orders and the Facebook video from the police force, several rights groups condemned Hun Sen’s comments. 

Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director of Amnesty International, responded with a statement on the organization’s website. He called the prime minister’s remarks “dangerous” and accused them of “victim-blaming.” 

“This rhetoric only serves to perpetuate violence against women and stigmatize survivors of gender-based violence,” Bequelin said.

He went on to warn that Hun Sen’s orders display how the government is abusing their surveillance systems to push a discriminatory agenda and said that Facebook must refuse any requests to block profiles of women for these reasons. 

“These developments underscore the dire state of freedom of expression in Cambodia,” Bequelin added. “In recent years, the Cambodian authorities have increasingly weaponized internet surveillance to target human rights defenders and opposition supporters based on their Facebook posts and communications.” 

Bequelin also argued that none of the women engaging in these online behaviors are breaking any laws and the police are responding solely to the whim of Hun Sen. 

Also on Wednesday, several other rights groups released a separate open letter echoing Bequelin’s sentiments. The groups—which included the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Gender and Development for Cambodia— accused Hun Sen of blaming victims and admonished his orders against women posting online in revealing clothing. 

“Punishing women for their choice of clothing is therefore part of the root cause of violence, rather than its cure, and must be rejected,” the letter said. “We appeal to the Cambodian government to acknowledge that Cambodia Needs to Respect Women’s Rights to Self-Determination, Expression, and Bodily Integrity in order to achieve gender equality and end gender-based violence in Cambodia.”

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Radio Free Asia) (Voice of America)

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