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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

Boris Johnson Strikes Brexit Deal With EU. Will It Move Through Parliament?

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  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a new Brexit deal with the European Union on Thursday.
  • The deal would get rid of the contentious Irish backstop, but it would create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
  • Johnson is expected to hold a vote on the deal in British Parliament on Saturday, but both opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland oppose it.
  • If the deal fails, Johnson will likely need to go back to the EU and ask for an extension to the U.K.’s current Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.

Johnson and EU Agree to a New Deal

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a new Brexit deal with the European Union Thursday, which notably removes the Irish backstop but adds a controversial Northern Irish-only backstop.

“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control,” Johnson said on Twitter. “Now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday so we can move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment.”

The new deal comes after Johnson said he would negotiate a better deal than the EU offered former prime minister Theresa May. however, the EU previously said it wouldn’t negotiate a different deal.

All of that happened while Johnson lost his majority in British Parliament, as he kicked out members of his own party, and as parliament voted to prevent him from leaving the EU without a deal.

Notably, removing the United Kingdom from the EU has been one of Johnson’s major promises, and he originally said that would happen by the current Oct. 31 deadline with or without a deal.

What’s in the New Brexit Deal?

The new deal provides several key provisions that Johnson hopes will pass parliament’s scrutiny. First and most notably, the deal scraps the massively contentious Irish backstop.

The United Kingdom is composed of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The controversy surrounding the backstop specifically deals with Northern Ireland, which is on the same island as the independent Republic of Ireland. 

Right now, there is no hard border between those two countries, meaning there are no customs checks for goods crossing between the border. Under May’s deal, that soft border would have remained, but this was actually one of the big reasons her deal failed three times in parliament. Members of parliament believed this backstop would have essentially kept the UK in the EU.

Second, the new deal creates a new Northern Ireland-only backstop, which can become confusing since Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. Basically, the deal sets up a special arrangement where Northern Ireland would still remain subject to certain EU regulations, including agriculture, value-added tax on goods, excise duties, and state aid rules.

That, in turn, would prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but it would result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., meaning that there would be customs checks and different regulations between the two which could lead to additional trade costs for the U.K.

Another caveat to the deal would also eventually give Northern Ireland lawmakers the chance to decide on whether or not they want to stay so closely aligned with the EU in the future.

Third, while the U.K. would leave the EU, it would still continue to apply EU rules until the end of next year. That time will be seen as a transition period meant to soften the split, especially since the deal does not look to the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU.

The period is meant to give them time to work out a trade deal, among other provisions, and it could be extended by up to two years if both sides agree they need more time. As far as May’s deal, this aspect is similar to her agreement.

Unlike May’s deal, this deal is non-binding, meaning the EU has the ability to change its mind.

Will the Deal Pass?

One of the major questions following the announcement of the agreement was whether or not the bill can stand against a parliament that has rejected Brexit votes multiple times. 

The removal of the Irish backstop is expected to be a sticking point for a lot of pro-Brexit Conservative MP’s, and a few opposition Labour Party MPs have expressed support. 

Johnson is expected to vote on the deal on Saturday, and if it does pass, the U.K. could actually meet its end of the month deadline.

But, it’s not going to be that easy. Many MPs from other parties have already said they will refuse to back the deal.

“From what we know, it seems the Prime Minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May’s,” Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

The Liberal Democrats have also said they are opposed to the deal and have echoed Corbyn’s call for a second referendum as to whether the U.K. should even leave the EU. Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage said he’s not voting for the deal, either.

If that’s not enough, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland issued their opposition to the deal, as well. That could make or break the deal’s passage as the DUP is a key ally for Johnson.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union,” the party’s statement reads. 

Specifically, the party is not happy with Northern Ireland functioning as a hard border between the EU and the rest of the U.K.

Johnson’s deal, however, has been well-received outside of Britain among leaders of other EU countries. The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and France’s President Emmanuel Macron all expressed support for the deal and moving it forward.

Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of Ireland, also agreed the deal was fair and said the deal solves the issue with Northern Ireland.

“[It] also creates a unique solution for Northern Ireland recognising the unique history and geography of Northern Ireland, one which ensures there is no hard border between north and south,” he said. 

If the deal ultimately passes through British Parliament, it will need to be approved by EU leaders in the European Parliament to bind them to the agreement.

If the deal fails, Johnson will be forced to ask the EU for an extension until the end of January. Though there’s been a lot of concern over whether he would actually do that, a secretary for Johnson has now said he will comply with the law.

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

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Erdogan Rejects U.S. Call for Ceasefire

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  • Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rejected U.S. efforts for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria for the second time on Wednesday.
  • Speaking during a press conference later, President Trump denied that Erdogan had said he would not agree to a ceasefire and expressed optimism that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence would broker a truce.
  • Over the weekend the Trump administration also announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Turkey while simultaneously withdrawing more U.S. troops from Syria.

Erdogan’s Announcement

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his rejection to the United States’ call for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria on Wednesday.

The announcement comes the same day that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to Turkey to meet with the Turkish leader and to try to press Turkey for a ceasefire in its incursion into Northern Syria.

The Turkish military operation started last week after the White House released a statement saying the U.S. would step aside while Turkey went ahead with a long-planned offensive against Kurdish forces in the region.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) that control the region terrorists and has said the operation is necessary to secure their border.

However, the U.S. has long been allied with the SDF, which has done the bulk of fighting against ISIS on the ground in Northern Syria and also guarded prisons holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families.

In a direct rebuke of the U.S., while speaking before the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan said that Turkey would not broker a truce because it has “never in its history sat down at a table with terrorist groups.”

“We are not looking for a mediator for that,” he continued. “Nobody can stop us.”

The president also called for Syrian fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the region immediately.

Although it appears that Pence and Pompeo still intend to make their trip, there have been conflicting reports about whether or not Erdogan would meet with Pence or Pompeo.

“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them. They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he told Sky News Tuesday.

Later, his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the president had reversed that decision. 

“He does plan to meet the U.S. delegation led by @VP tomorrow — as confirmed in the below statement to the Turkish press,” Altun said in a tweet.

Sanctions and Ceasefire

Erdogan’s statement Wednesday echoed a similar sentiment he expressed the day before, while also speaking about sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

“They say ‘declare a cease-fire’. We will never declare a cease-fire,” the president said speaking in Azerbaijan. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

In an announcement Monday, President Donald Trump said that he would “soon be issuing an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions against current and former officials of the Government of Turkey and any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”

He added that, among other things, the U.S. would stop negotiations of a trade deal, increase steel tariffs by 50%, and “authorize a broad range of consequences including financial sanctions, blocking of property and barring entry into the U.S.”

U.S. Withdraws Troops & Kurds Side With Assad

Trump’s announcement of sanctions Monday came after a series of rapid developments the day before.

Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that following discussions with the national security team, Trump had directed that the U.S. “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.” 

Esper did not say exactly when or how many troops would be withdrawn, but he later told Fox News that the number would be “less than 1,000 troops.” According to reports, the U.S. only has about 1,000 troops in the region.

The announcement also came amid reports from Kurdish officials and others in the area that around 800 people held in ISIS prisons broke free. Erdogan responded by saying the claims were “disinformation” intended to provoke the U.S. and others.

But Kurdish forces maintained that this was a serious security threat.

Many experts and lawmakers have warned that the U.S. removal of troops in Syria would allow ISIS to regroup because Kurdish forces would be stretched too thin fighting a military attack and would not able to keep a stable hold on the region or stop ISIS fighters from escaping from the camps.

Some condemned Esper’s announcement, arguing that the U.S.’ decision to remove even more troops would just make the situation worse.

Just hours after Esper’s statement, Kurdish leaders announced that they had struck a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, would be sending troops to help the Kurds fight Turkey.

Many described this move as a turning point in Syria’s eight-year-long war because it represents a notable shift in influence from the United States to Russia.

Those critical of the removal of U.S. forces in Syria have argued that it will pave the way for Russian forces allied with the Syrian government to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. leaving the region.

Trump, for his part, responded to the move in a tweet later on Monday, writing, “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

Russia appeared to have taken that to heart, and announced Tuesday that they would be sending their own troops to patrol between Turkish and Syrian forces.

Trump Press Conference

Trump on Wednesday maintained that he will try to mediate discussions between Turkey and the Kurds.

While speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump claimed that Erdogan did not refuse to agree to a ceasefire, and downplayed U.S. involvement in the crisis.

“The Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight,” he said. “And as I said they’re not angels, they’re not angels, if you take a look, you have to go back and take a look. But they fought with us and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s okay.” 

“So, if Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border, we shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” he continued. 

The president also later seemed to echo what Erdogan said when Kurdish forces reported that ISIS prisoners had escaped.

“Some were released just for effect, to make us look a little bit like ‘oh gee, we got to get right back in there,’” Trump said.

Meanwhile, the violent military standoff between Turkey and Syria continues.

It is currently unclear how many military personnel and civilians have died, but what is clear is that the Turkish incursion is tearing up a country already ravaged by war, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in a country where there are already millions of refugees.

On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that “at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the offensive began,” also adding that “hospitals and schools and other public infrastructure hit or affected by the fighting.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (Axios)

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LeBron James Criticizes Rockets GM’s Pro Hong-Kong Tweet As Protests Enter 19th Week

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  • LeBron James faced heavy criticism for saying Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey was “misguided” and was not thinking of the emotions and finances of NBA employees when tweeting a pro-Hong Kong message last week.
  • In addition to criticizing James, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said Hong Kong was on the verge of becoming a police state.
  • On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam called Hawley’s comment “irresponsible and unfounded.”
  • Over the weekend, 201 demonstrators were arrested, with one demonstrator detonating a homemade bomb and another critically wounding an officer after stabbing him in the neck.

LeBron James Calls Morey Tweet Misguided

LeBron James faced backlash online after he called Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey “misguided” and said Morey wasn’t well-educated on the situation in Hong Kong.

Two weeks ago, Morey tweeted a photo reading, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in support of pro-democracy protestors.

Source: @dmorey

Though Morey deleted the tweet soon after posting it, China cut ties with the Houston Rockets and the NBA distanced itself from Morey. American politicians then criticized the NBA for bowing to China.

“We do all have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and you’re only thinking about yourself,” James said to reporters. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed…”

James then continued, saying Morey should have thought about the financial and emotional stress his tweet could have had on people working in the NBA.

In response, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) blasted the Lakers forward, insinuating he is the one who is uneducated about the Hong Kong protests. 

“Having just been in Hong Kong – on the streets & with the protestors – this kind of garbage is hard to take,” Hawley said. “LeBron, are YOU educated on ‘the situation’? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong?”

In Hong Kong, protestors trampled on and burned James’ Jersey in retaliation.

James Attempts to Clarify Comments

Later on Twitter, James backtracked on his initial comments, saying he was not referring to the substance of Morey’s tweet and that Morey should have waited to post it.

“Let me clear up the confusion,” James wrote. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”

“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” he continued. “I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”

If James hoped his response would reduce the criticism he faced online, he was misguided.

“LeBron James, who has a $1 billion shoe deal with Nike, says pro-Hong Kong NBA exec needs to think more about others,” one user wrote. “Others do not include Chinese Nike laborers”

Improvised Bomb Explodes and Officer Stabbed

In Hong Kong, police arrested 201 people over the weekend—some as young as 14. 

The protests—now in their 19th week—have continued to increase in scale in regard to their violence, with police firing tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and even a live round at an 18-year-old man. Demonstrators have also hit back at police with bricks, stones, and gas bombs. 

Pro-democracy protesters have specifically called for an end to the proposed extradition agreement between China and Hong Kong, which could force Hong Kong to extradite Chinese dissidents to the mainland. In September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised to withdraw the bill, but protesters have since added to their list of demands.

The violence escalated Sunday as a protester reportedly detonated a homemade improvised bomb as a police vehicle passed. While authorities said the explosion did not injure anyone, they believe it was meant to harm or even maim.

That same night, another demonstrator reportedly stabbed an officer in the neck, severing several veins. The officer is now in serious condition. 

Notably, Deputy Police Commissioner Tang Ping-keung associated the violence not with pro-democracy protesters but with rioters.

“These people doing violent acts are not protesters,” he said. “They are indeed rioters and criminals that are destroying our rule of law. Whatever causes they claim they are fighting for can never justify such triad-like behavior.”

Hawley Says Hong Kong is in Danger of Becoming a “Police State” 

During peaceful protests Monday night, pro-democracy protesters pleaded for American lawmakers to pass a law that would support Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy.

That law—the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act—has bipartisan support in Congress, and according to the bill, it would, “assess whether China has eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law as protected by Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”

It would also allow the president to “provide Congress an assessment as to whether to withdraw from the U.S.-Hong Kong extradition treaty, and what actions are needed to protect U.S. citizens and national security interests, if Hong Kong (1) amends its laws to allow the rendition of individuals to countries that lack defendants’ rights protections, or (2) passes a national security law.”

One of the co-sponsors of that bill is Hawley, which is why he visited Hong Kong over the weekend. Alongside Hawley, Senator Ted Cruz also toured the city. 

While he was in Hong Kong, Hawley criticized police for making the crisis worse and using unnecessary force. He also said that the city is in “danger of sliding into a police state.”

Lam Decries “Police State” Claims

Lam bit back against Hawley’s criticism on Monday.

“I thought their visit to Hong Kong would enable them to see the actual situation in a comprehensive and objective manner,” she said at a press conference, “but unfortunately the feedback that I’ve got is most of them, or several of them coming here, they have very preconceived views about Hong Kong’s situation. That’s why for this particular senator to describe Hong Kong as becoming a police state is totally irresponsible and unfounded.”

At the same conference, she described Hong Kong police as civilized and professional. She then asked U.S. lawmakers how they would respond to large-scale violent acts if they occurred in their own country.

On Twitter, Hawley then doubled down on his statement, saying his use of the word was explicitly intentional.

“I chose the words “police state” purposely – because that is exactly what Hong Kong is becoming,” he said. “I saw it myself. If Carrie Lam wants to demonstrate otherwise, here’s an idea: resign.”

As for how events will continue to unfold, Lam is expected to give her annual policy address tomorrow. In it, she’s expected to address her plans to solve the protests.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Sunday night that any attempts to split China would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.”

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (New York Times)

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