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Brazil Prison Riot Leaves 57 Dead, 16 Decapitated

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  • A prison riot between rival gangs in Brazil left at least 57 inmates dead. Of those killed, 16 were decapitated and the rest died from smoke inhalation from a fire that was started.
  • Gang violence is common in Brazilian prisons, which kingpins often use as command centers to run their criminal operations.
  • Inmate populations have grown dramatically in the last decade, creating issues with overcrowding and lack of funding, and leaving Brazil with the third-largest prison population in the world.
  • Experts expect the violence to get worse as inmate populations rise, and as President Jair Bolsonaro promises to put more people in jail.

Prison Riot

A prison riot that broke out in the state of Pará, Brazil Monday has left 57 people dead.

The riot reportedly started when members of one gang at the Altamira prison invaded the prison block that another rival gang occupied. Gang members then started a fire, which spread rapidly and prevented police from entering the building for several hours.

Once the riot was stopped and the damages were assessed, authorities reported that 16 people had died from decapitation, while the rest had died from smoke inhalation from the fire.

Two prison guards were also held hostage during the riot, but they were later released unharmed.

“It was a targeted attack,” State prisons chief Jarbas Vasconcelos said in a statement. “The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two groups, not a protest or rebellion against the prison system.”

Vasconcelos statement is not wrong, but the situation is more nuanced than his description may imply.

At the surface level, it is true that the riot was caused by rival gangs. Over the last few years, Brazil’s largest gangs have expanded and spread across the country as they develop lucrative drug routes and form alliances with smaller gangs.

That has also lead to more violence between gangs. Those clashes do not stop when gang members or even the drug kingpins are put in jail. In fact, many of the gangs consider prisons to be a sort of command center or home base.

Brazil’s government has long moved gang leaders to prisons that are far away from their homes with the hope that it will weaken their criminal networks.

However, that policy seems to have completely backfired because it has basically just allowed the gangs to create a broader national reach.

Once in jail, gang leaders use smuggled cell phones to continue to run their criminal organizations, sometimes across multiple states.

These gang members are incredibly powerful in Brazilian prisons, so much so that other inmates are often forced to join the gangs to survive.

Overcrowding & Underfunding

While it is true that the rivalries between these gangs prompted Monday’s riot, that kind of mass violence is not necessarily inevitable.

The violence among prison inmates is exacerbated by more structural issues, like overcrowding and lack of funding. Brazil’s prison population has risen in recent years, but there has not been funding or investment to match that rise.

According to the Washington Post, Brazil’s inmate population has gone from about 500,000 to 800,000 in the last 10 years alone, making it the third-largest inmate population in the world after the U.S. and China.

Just this month, Brazil’s National Justice Council released a report that found the Altamira prison was built for 163 detainees but holds 343. The report also described the conditions inside the prison as “terrible.”

At a press conference, Vasconcelos said Altamira is not considered overcrowded. “It is not a unit that has a prison overcrowding, we consider overcrowding when it exceeds 210 percent,” he said.

However, some of the Brazilian facilities are reportedly so overcrowded that inmates are forced to sleep standing up and their hands are tied to bars so they stay upright. The lack of funding also means that prisons are short-staffed.

Experts have said that the combination of overcrowding and lack of funding has a direct connection to increased gang violence in the prisons.

“There are almost twice as many prisoners as there is prison space,” Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo’s Violence Studies Center told the Washington Post. “The result is that this insecurity strengthens gang command and prison leadership, which has grown in Brazil in the last 10 years.”

Experts also believe this kind of violence will not only continue but also get worse, which is something that is already happening.

The Altamira riot is not the only instance of prison violence that has caused mass fatalities in the last few months. In May, 55 people were killed in riots that broke out in four separate prisons all in the state of Amazonas. Again, those riots stemmed from power struggles between gangs.

In early 2017, more than 120 inmates died when rival gangs fought over control of drug-trafficking routes. That violence lasted several weeks and spanned multiple states.

Political Problems

Brazil’s troubling prison system begs the question: what are politicians and the government doing?

In many ways, the answer is just making it worse. President Jair Bolsonaro was elected last year on the promise that he would crack down on crime, even saying that he planned to “stuff prison cells with criminals.”

However, Paes Manso believes this will only make things worse. 

“By insisting on high incarceration in overcrowded prisons, Bolsonaro wants to increase the dose of the poison that is killing us,” he said.

Overcrowding is also complicated by the fact that many of Brazil’s prisons are run at the state level. While Bolsonaro’s administration has called for states to build more prisons, the lack of funding makes that unlikely.

Even the prisons that have been built recently are not enough. According to the Washington Post, space for over 8,650 inmates has been built since 2018, but the number of new inmates grew by more than 17,800 during the same time.

Other’s have also proposed sending gang kingpins to federal prisons, but experts have argued that the violence is a product of an inherently flawed system.

“Nationwide, 40 percent of people in detention are awaiting trial,” Maria Laura Canineu, the director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch told the Washington Post. “Most inmates are black young men with low levels of education who depend on understaffed public defenders’ offices for their legal defense.”

Canineu also added that she too anticipates that prison gangs will get stronger as inmate populations grow in already overcrowded prisons.

There is also a general lack of political will to fix that broken system. Some politicians, like Bolsonaro, seem to want to increase the inmate population.

Some analysts believe that as the violence gets more common, the people of Brazil, who are already used to prison violence, will become more apathetic.

“Unfortunately, most Brazilians will shrug off this latest outbreak of violence, numb as they are to the ritual of bloodletting in the country’s prisons,” Robert Muggah, the research director at the Rio de Janeiro-based think tank Igarapé Institute told the New York Times

Others even seemed to celebrate the violence. Gilson Cardoso Fahur, a congressman from Parana state who was recently elected on the promise to curb violent crime, responded to Monday’s riot, seemingly cheering them on.

“In these fights between criminal factions, I root for the machete,” he said. “The truth is no one is going to miss them. They won’t commit crimes again.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CBS News)

International

Hong Kong Undercuts Press Freedoms, Effectively Bans Freelance and Student Journalists

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  • Hong Kong just changed who it recognizes as journalists, using a system that would be easier to track them and restrict who can register as one.
  • The move was highly criticized as a way to restrict freelance and student journalism. The issue has sparked conversations and concerns about freedom of the press, speech, and more.
  • The change comes the same day that mainland China sentenced billionaire Ren Zhiqiang to 18-years for varying corruption charges. The charges, however, are seen as retaliation for criticizing President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
  • On top of civil rights issues, concerns for human rights increased following a Tuesday report that highlighted the extent of a labor camp system in Tibet.

Hong Kong Press Under Attack

Police in Hong Kong issued new rules Tuesday that effectively ban freelance and student journalism, and allow police to more easily track and restrict journalists who are part of a recognized media organiztion.

In Hong Kong, the formerly autonomous city was known for its democracy, free speech, and independent journalism. Yet, recent events have effectively forced changes in the city, and the latest escalation targets journalists.

In a letter to four local journalist groups, Chief Superintendent Kenneth Kwok said that changes would be made to Police General Orders, which are police rulings. These recent changes would redefine who law enforcement recognizes as journalists. Currently, the police recognize “media representatives” as reporters, photographers, and television crews who carry proof of ID from newspapers, agencies, and television or radio stations.

Kwok’s letter explained the changes, saying, “After the amendment, the definition of ‘media representatives’ under the Police General Orders will be more concise and clearer, allowing frontline personnel to identify media representatives more efficiently and swiftly,”

These changes require domestic journalists to register with a state database that keeps track of their identity and credentials. Foreign journalists working for a “prominent” foreign news outlet are exempt from registering.

These latest changes will likely gut freelance and student journalism as neither group is employed by a news organization. Both those groups are bothersome to Hong Kong police, who accuse them of actively taking part in protests and demonstrations rather than impartially reporting them.

Local press groups don’t see the issue that way. A statement by eight organizations and associations characterized the changes as a major attack on independent journalism in the city.

“Today, the police have broken this relationship by planning to make a significant amendment without first discussing and consulting our sector. We demand the police to scrap the relevant amendment, or we will respond by taking any possible and necessary measures.”

The head of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, Chris Yeung, added his thoughts in an interview with the Hong Kong Free Press, saying, “It is quite regrettable. [The existing arrangement] was worked out among police, the government, and us years ago. It was an important part of our relationship.”

This attack against the press isn’t a new thing. On multiple occasions over the last few weeks, journalists were fined for breaking coronavirus public gathering restrictions while covering demonstrations after providing Hong Kong Journalist Association credentials.

https://hongkongfp.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/photo5361710746125315821-Copy-1050x699.jpg
A fine given to a journalist while covering coronavirus demonstrations. Via Hong Kong Free Press

Billionaire Sentenced to 18-Years Behind Bars

Many of the restrictions Hong Kong is beginning to face aren’t new to Mainland China. For decades, the mainland hasn’t had freedom of the press, association, or speech. The case of Ren Zhiqiang, for instance, highlights the lack of freedom of speech in China.

Ren is a Chinese billionaire who was sentenced to 18 years in prison Tuesday for embezzling $16.3 million in public funds, accepting bribes, and abusing power that caused the loss of $17.2 million for a state-owned company that he once was in charge of.

Despite none of those charges being directly related to freedom of speech, his case is seen as retaliation for something he wrote. Ren, a life-long Communist Party member, has a long-standing reputation of speaking out against the leadership of the Communist Party.

His most recent critique allegedly came in March, when a letter appeared on Chinese social media that attacked how the government was handling the COVID-19 outbreak. The letter is technically anonymous, but media outlets in China and across the globe have stated that Ren was the author.

Adding to that possibility was the fact that shortly after the letter came out, Ren disappeared in March. It wasn’t until April that charges were brought against him.

Ren’s alleged letter didn’t waste time criticizing the Communist Party. “This outbreak of the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic has verified the reality: when all media took on the ‘surname of the Party,’ the people ‘were abandoned’ indeed. Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts, the people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”

“Surname of the Party,” is a euphemism used by party officials in 2016 to say that the press needed to be loyal to the Party. At the time, Ren critiqued that decision and was suspended as a party member for a year.

The letter in March also referenced a conference President Xi Jinping gave talking about the virus, saying: “I too am curiously and conscientiously studying [Xi’s teleconferenced February 23] speech, but what I saw in it was the complete opposite of the “importance” reported by all types of media and online. I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his “new clothes,” but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor.”

Despite holding a series of loincloths up in an attempt to cover the reality of your nakedness, you don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor, or the determination to let anyone who won’t let you be destroyed” he continued.

To be clear, it’s possible that Ren actually did everything he’s been accused of. Embezzling and accepting bribes are often how relationships between businesses and Communist party officials work in China. The sentencing court also recognized that he “voluntarily” admitted to all the charges.

However, the timing reflects a pattern in China that suggests officials are fine with minor forms of corruption if its mutually beneficial and only crackdown when someone gets on their bad side.

Constant confessions mean that courts have a 99% conviction rate, although most cases on the mainland are against business people and party officials.

Tibetan Vocational Training

On top of curbing the freedom of the press in Hong Kong, or allegedly silencing a critic on the mainland, a Tuesday report by German Anthropologist Adrian Zenz details a widespread labor camp system similar to what is happening in Xinjiang.

All across China, there are “vocational training centers,” many of which are used to combat poverty. However, in places like in Xinjiang, they are believed to be used to sinicize the local ethnic and cultural groups. The extent of these camps varies/ Xinjiang officials are accused of extrajudicial detentions and cultural genocide, while the camps in Tibet are seen as coercive efforts to change the populations.

Like Xinjiang, Tibet is filled with ethnic and religious minorities, many of whom live a traditional nomadic, herding lifestyle. According to Zenz’s report, which was corroborated by outlets like Reuters, Tibet’s program has “trained” half a million Tibetans. That’s 1/6 of all Tibetans.

The reason Tibet’s program has drawn particular concern is because revelations indicate that not only is the program being used to combat poverty, but it’s also being used to specifically target those with traditional lifestyles in order to “modernize” them.

Zenz notes that while extrajudicial detentions don’t seem to happen in Tibet, there is a heavy emphasis on coercing the population to join the military-style labor camps by party and government officials.

See What Others Are Saying: (South China Morning Post) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Myanmar Soldiers Claim in Confession Video They Were Ordered to Kill and Rape Rohingya

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  • Two Myanmar soldiers have appeared in a confessional video claiming to have been ordered to kill and rape Rohingya in 2017.
  • These are the first two first-hand accounts from Myanmar soldiers confirming widespread accusations that the Myanmar military partook in potential genocide against ethnic Rohingya.
  • However, the veracity of the claims hasn’t been confirmed, nor has whether or not the soldiers gave their confessions under duress by the rebel Arakan Army, who released the video.
  • Both men are currently at The Hague being interrogated by investigators at the International Criminal Court.

Genocide in the 21st Century

Two members of the Myanmar military appeared in a recently released video where they seemed to admit that they were ordered to pillage, kill, and rape Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The confessions appear to match accounts of the situation in Rakhine given by Rohingya survivors.

The Rohingya are a prominent ethnic group that live in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar, which borders the sea and Bangladesh. They have been described by the Myanmar government as “illegal aliens” despite having been in the region as far back as the 15th century. 

Over the decades, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the Myanmar military, which has demanded that they “return” to neighboring Bangladesh. In 2017, those tensions escalated when the military heavily cracked down on the Rakhine state and engaged in what human rights have described as having the “hallmarks of genocide.” Not only were Rohignya targeted, but many other people across the region.

At the time, video and satellite images of the areas showed large scale destruction, with many villages completely burned down. Tens of thousands fled their homes to refugee camps in Bangladesh.

According to Private Myo Win Tun and Private Zaw Naing Tun, the two men seen in the confessional video, “We destroyed the Muslim villages near Taung Bazar village. We implemented the clearance operations in the night-time as per the command to ‘shoot all that you see and that you hear.’ We buried a total number of 30 dead bodies in one grave.”

Pvt. Myo Win Tun and Pvt. Zaw Naing Tun

Justice Being Sought

The two soldiers are said to have fled Myanmar last month and arrived in Bangladesh, from where on Monday they were transported to The Hague, home of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. 

As for the veracity of the video, that is harder to determine. It is unclear if the soldiers are giving this confession under duress, or if they surrendered as deserters. The video was filmed by the Arakan Army, the largest and most organized militant group in Rakhine state, who represent a coalition of various ethnic groups in the region against the central Myanmar government. 

This lends to the possibility that the men were coerced to confess under duress. Yet, the Arakan Army has a long standing feud with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the main militant group representing the Rohingya,who would benefit the most from admissions of genocide.

However, many Human Rights Groups think the confessions are legitimate. 

“This is a monumental moment for Rohingya and the people of Myanmar in their ongoing struggle for justice,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights. “These men could be the first perpetrators from Myanmar tried at the I.C.C., and the first insider witnesses in the custody of the court.”

The Myanmar government continues to deny any wrongdoing in Rakhine, stating that the operations there were to clear out terrorist elements. Any footage of burned down villages has been waived away as Rohingya burning down their own villages for sympathy. Since 2017, only a handful of soldiers have been punished with short prison terms for “isolated” incidents.

The two soldiers held at The Hague are not under arrest, but are effectively in custody awaiting a potential trial. Lawyers and investigators have already spent weeks investigating their claims, and their testimony will likely be used by prosecutors at the International Court of Justice. 

There, Myanmar is being accused in a filing by Gambia of trying to “destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part, by the use of mass murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as the systematic destruction by fire of their villages.”

See What Others Are Saying: (CNN) (New York Times) (Reuters)

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Large Fire Erupts in Beirut’s Port, Weeks After Massive Explosion

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  • A large fire erupted in Beirut’s port Thursday, triggering panic among residents who are still traumatized by last month’s massive explosion. The Aug. 4 blast of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. 
  • It’s not yet clear what caused the fire and crews are working to put it out. Residents have been warned to stay clear of the area in the meantime and no casualties were immediately reported. 
  • This is the second fire to break out at the port this week and it comes about a week after Lebanon’s army discovered four tons ammonium nitrate stored near the port.
  • Some believe the fire was set intentionally to hide evidence related to the explosion. For now, residents continue to live on edge as their distrust in the country’s management grows.

Fire Breaks Out 

A huge fire broke out in Beirut’s port on Thursday, terrifying local residents who are still recovering from the last month’s devastating explosion. 

Video posted online shows people running from massive flames and thick black smoke, which can be viewed from miles away. 

The fire was said to have started in a warehouse of a private company that imported cooking oil. It then spread to a separate stock of rubber tires, but as of now, there’s no information about what caused the blaze. 

No casualties were immediately reported, though we some reports of people with shortness of breath. According to the state-run news agency NNA, Beirut’s governor told residents to stay clear of the port area “for their safety” and to allow firefighters to perform their duties unhindered. All roads leading into the port are blocked off, and the Lebanese Army is currently working to help firefighters by dropping water on the flames from helicopters.

Trauma From Last Month’s Blast Lingers 

The fire broke out near a major highway known as a free zone, where companies store goods that have yet to clear customs. That area, like much of the port, was heavily damaged in the Aug. 4 explosion. That explosion was caused by a 2,750-ton stock of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored for years. Records later showed that government officials knew of the dangerous chemical stockpile but failed to act. 

The blast ultimately left 190 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and 300,000 displaced from their homes. For many, that explosion was the last straw, prompting major protests against longrunning corruption in the country, which was already suffering through its worst economic crisis in decades.

The protests eventually pushed the Prime Minister of Lebanon and his cabinet to resign, though many have still called for widespread reforms that will bring more meaningful change. 

Still, even with the government resigning, fear within the community has persisted. Just last week, the Lebanese Army said it had found more than four tons of ammonium nitrate stored near the port. They disposed of it, but it was a chilling discovery that made many uneasy. 

Then a smaller fire broke out earlier this week, which also caused a scare but was eventually put out by firefighters. This latest fire just builds onto the existing panic. People at the port and nearby neighborhoods have been scrambling flee or hide out of fear that this fire could cause a new explosion.

One local whose car and apartment were destroyed in the last month’s explosion told The New York Times, “I’m telling myself that nothing’s going to happen and it’s probably not a big deal, but you can’t fight the anxiety of opening all the windows, sitting inside a corridor or being jumpy all the time and having people call you, telling you to leave the area.”

Another person who was leaving the area with his wife and kids told Reuters, “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again.”

With a large fire so close to the original location of the explosion, some have speculated that it was deliberately set to destroy evidence. Others believe it’s just another example of what the country’s mismanagement brings. 

Some, like Lebanese MP Rola Tabsh, are calling for an international investigation into the Beirut port fires.

Beirut has suffocated from the smoke of your oppression. Beirut has burned from the fires of your corruption and arrogance,” she tweeted.

An international investigation now and not tomorrow.”

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

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