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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

Thousands Paralyze France in Pension Reform Protests

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  • Massive worker strikes and protests have shut down schools, transportation services, and museums in France.
  • Though largely peaceful, there have been reports of protesters throwing projectiles at police, smashing windows, and setting fires.
  • The strike, which is expected to last into the weekend, is in protest of planned pension reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron. 
  • Under Macron’s policy, many workers fear they would need to work longer before accessing a pension that would ultimately give them less money.

Strikes Shut Down Trains, Flights, and Schools

Hundreds of thousands of French workers went on strike across the country on Thursday in protest of a proposed new pension reform system.

Under the new system, many unions worry people will need to work longer to see less money than they would under the current system. 

As of midday, French officials are reporting that more than 280,000 people have joined protests across the country; however, that figure doesn’t include counts from major cities like Paris and Lyon.

The protests, which are expected to continue Friday and likely to extend into the weekend, have shut down train lines and canceled flights.  

According to reports, 90% of high-speed and inter-city trains have been canceled. In Paris, only five of 16 of the city’s metro lines ran Thursday. Further, the international train company Eurostar said it will be operating with a reduced timetable until Tuesday.

Air France has also canceled 30% of domestic flights and 10% of short-haul international flights, that coming amid mass walkouts by air traffic controllers.

If all of that wasn’t enough to cripple transportation, one group is reportedly drawing over the QR codes on e-scooters like Bird so that people can’t use them. 

Additionally, according to the education ministry, half of primary school teachers and 42% of secondary school teachers are on strike today. The end result led to some school closing for the day. 

Tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower and museums were also closed, but more notably, many feared hospital staffing shortages as many medical workers walked out to demonstrate. 

For their part, several trade union leaders have promised to continue to strike until Macron abandons his planned pension overhaul.

Reports of Violence

In Paris alone, 6,000 police have been deployed. Reports indicate that 71 people have been arrested in Paris by 3:30 p.m. local time.

With those arrests, there have also been several reports of clashing between police and protesters, with protesters hurling projectiles at police. Police in several cities have since responded with tear gas. 

Videos of protesters setting fires to object in the streets have also surfaced. 

Because the protest in Paris is so huge, the city’s police chief told all businesses and restaurants along the major march routes to close. Later within the day, new reports surfaced that some protesters had smashed in the windows of some businesses.

French President Emmanuel Macron, however, was described by one senior official as “calm and determined” in the face of the strikes —

Macron is “watchful that public order be respected, watchful as to the difficulties for French people, and watchful also that the right to strike is respected,” the aide said.

Why is France Considering Pension Reform?

Currently, France has 42 different pension systems across both the private and public sectors. That means that people retire at different times and will see different benefits. 

Under different forms of the system, for example, aircrews and rail workers get to retire earlier, but people like lawyers and doctors pay a lower tax.

The official age of retirement in France is 62, which is one of the earliest retirement ages in wealthy countries, but that hurdle has already been raised from 60 within the last decade. 

Macron, who campaigned on the promise of pension reform, now says he wants to introduce a universal, points-based pension system. While Macron says such a pension system would help the country compete globally in the 21st century, such a system would mean that some of the most advantageous pension plans would be scrapped. 

Secondly, if a person were to retire before 64, they would end up seeing a lower pension. For example, if they retire at 63, they would see about 5% less.

French people, however, have generally supported pension reform, with one poll showing 75% of people saying they believed pension reform was necessary. Of those polled, only one-third of people said they thought the government could pull off reform.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (NPR)

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International

House Passes Bill to Sanction China for Treatment of Uighurs

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  • The House passed a bill condemning the Chinese treatment of Uighurs and recommending sanctions on top Chinese officials.
  • The Senate passed a version of the bill in September. The two chambers must now come up with a unified version to pass on to President Trump.
  • China responded by condemning the legislation, and saying it “grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs.”
  • The move comes as the U.S. is already in hot water with China following Trump’s decision to sign an act last week authorizing the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong for human rights abuses, among other things.

House Passes Uighur Bill

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday that would place sanctions on top Chinese officials involved in perpetrating human rights abuses against China’s Muslim Uighur minority, as well as formally condemn the country’s treatment of the Uighurs.

The bill, which was passed with an overwhelming vote of 407-1, also details the efforts of the Chinese government in recent years to ramp up control of the Xinjiang region where the Uighurs reside.

In addition to implementing advanced AI surveillance systems all over the region, the Chinese government has also detained upwards of one million Uighurs in internment camps.

Numerous reports, as well as both public and leaked Chinese government documents, show that the Uighurs are detained against their will in the camps, where they are forced to learn Mandarin, swear loyalty to President Xi Jinping, and renounce their faith.

There have also been multiple reports of torture and other human rights abuses, prompting rights groups and countries all over the world to argue that the camps are systems of mass-incarceration for an ethnic minority and a violation of human rights.

China, which originally denied the existence of the camps, now claims that they are vocational boarding schools where they help the Uighurs by giving them job training and education skills. They also claim that it is a safe way to combat terrorism.

Contents of House Bill 

The House bill comes a few months after the Senate passed a similar version of the legislation back in September.

According to the text of the bill, the purpose of the Act is to “direct United States resources to address gross violations of universally recognized human rights, including the mass internment of over 1,000,000 Uighurs” and other Muslim minorities in the region.

The Act also accuses the Chinese government having policies that have “systematically discriminated” against the Uighurs, including:

  • “Pervasive, high-tech surveillance across the region, including the arbitrary collection of biodata, such as DNA samples from children, without their knowledge or consent.”
  • “The use of QR codes outside homes to gather information on how frequently individuals pray.”
  • “Facial and voice recognition software and ‘predictive policing’ databases.”
  • And “severe restrictions on the freedom of movement across the region.”

The bill also accuses China of using the threat of terrorism as a justification for “pervasive restrictions on, and gross human rights violations against, the ethnic minority communities.”

If implemented, the legislation would direct the president to “condemn abuses against” the Uighurs and call on President Xi to “recognize the profound abuse and likely lasting damage” of China’s policies, “immediately close” the camps, and “lift all restrictions on and ensure respect for internationally guaranteed human rights across the region.”

Perhaps most significantly, the bill would also “impose targeted sanctions” on members of the Chinese government and other officials who have been involved in these abuses.

This would include officials who have been “credibly alleged to be responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.”

Among other things, the Act would also direct the Secretary of Commerce to consider prohibiting the sale of U.S. products and services to state agents in Xinjiang.

China Responds

China condemned the House’s actions in a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“This bill deliberately smears the human rights condition in Xinjiang, slanders China’s efforts in de-radicalization and counter-terrorism and viciously attacks the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy,” the statement said.

“It seriously violates international law and basic norms governing international relations, and grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs.”

The statement went on to say that the situation is not about human rights, but “fighting violence, terrorism and separatism.” The ministry also claimed that “the international community speaks highly” of its policies in Xinjiang. 

“We urge the US to correct its mistakes at once, prevent this bill from becoming law, and stop using Xinjiang-related issues to interfere China’s internal affairs,” the statement concluded. “China will take further reactions according to how the situation develops.”

Congress and U.S.-China Relations

Now, the House and Senate will have to work together to decide on a final version before passing it off to President Donald Trump, who has not said if he will sign the bill.

Despite the legislation’s bipartisan nature, whether or not Trump will sign it up in the air.

The president is already in hot water with China after signing an Act last week, which, among other things, authorizes the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong for human rights abuses.

Trump had initially been hesitant to sign the Act because he was worried it would complicate trade talks with China, but he ultimately went forward with it after pressure from Republican leaders.

China responded by imposing sanctions on several U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations.

With the Uighur bill almost certain to further disrupt trade negotiations, it remains unclear if Trump will risk sacrificing a possible deal to approve the legislation. 

Trump may find himself stuck in double-bind if Congressional leaders again pressure him to sign this bill, and especially if Congress has a veto-proof majority, as was the case with the Hong Kong legislation. 

As divided as Congress is right now, they have recently worked together to push through a number of bills targeting China with huge bipartisan support in both chambers.

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

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Trump Calls Trudeau “Two-Faced” After Hot Mic Video Surfaces

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  • A video featuring multiple world leaders appearing to make fun of Donald Trump was recorded at a NATO summit reception on Tuesday.
  • The clip, which has now gone viral, features Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, among other prominent figures, chatting in a circle at Buckingham Palace.
  • Trump responded to the video by calling Trudeau “two-faced” and accusing the Prime Minister of being upset that Trump was pushing him to up Canada’s military spending.
  • Trudeau later admitted he was talking about Trump while the others in the video have either flatly denied it or declined to comment.

Viral Video

A video of several world leaders appearing to bash U.S. President Donald Trump at a NATO summit reception went viral on Tuesday.

The 25-second clip shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands huddled together, chatting. 

There is a fifth in the circle whose face is never fully seen, but many believe that it is British royal Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth II’s daughter.

In the video, first shared online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, only snippets of the conversation were picked up.

“Is that why you were late?” Johnson asks Macron in the clip, smiling at him.

“He was late because he takes a forty-minute press conference off the top,” Trudeau says, fiddling his drink.

Trump is never mentioned by name in the video, but many viewers speculate that the group seems to be referencing the U.S. President’s actions earlier that day.

“You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Trudeau adds later in the video, after more inaudible discussion.

Rutte stands by, listening. Macron chimes into the conversation, but his words are inaudible in the recording.

The video was released just hours after a tense meeting between Trump and Macron, in which the French President pressed the American leader about his involvement with the military conflict in Turkey.

Trump’s Response

When asked about the video by reporters on Wednesday, prior to his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump responded with an insult—and then a compliment-—aimed at Trudeau. 

“Well he’s two-faced,” Trump said of the Canadian Prime Minister. “And honestly, with Trudeau, he’s a nice guy, I find him to be a very nice guy.” 

Trump went on to blame Trudeau’s frustration on the dispute over how much Canada is doling out on military spending. All NATO members are required to spend at least 2% of their GDP on national defense, a number that Canada is not currently meeting. 

“I called him out on the fact that he’s not paying two percent, and I guess he’s not very happy about it,” Trump said.

“Look, I’m representing the U.S. and he should be paying more than he’s paying and he understands that,” Trump added. “So I can imagine he’s not that happy, but that’s the way it is.”

Trudeau Admits to Talking About Trump

While Trudeau initially ignored reporters’ questions about the video on Wednesday, he later publicly admitted that it was indeed Trump that he was referring to in his comments about a 40-minute press conference.

“Last night I made reference to the fact that there was an unscheduled press conference before my meeting with President Trump,” Trudeau said. “I was happy to be part of it but it was certainly notable.” 

Trudeau confessed this in a press conference on Wednesday evening, according to CNN. He also addressed his “jaw drop” remarks, saying that they were referencing Trump’s announcement that the upcoming G7 summit will be hosted at Camp David.

“Every different leader has teams who now and then [had] jaws drop at unscheduled surprises, like that video for itself, for example,” Trudeau said.

Other Leaders Distancing Themselves From Video 

Although Trudeau came clean, the others featured in the video did not want to be associated with the recorded criticism of President Trump. Johnson flatly denied that he was apart of any such conversation.

“That’s complete nonsense, and I don’t know where that has come from,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. “I really don’t know what is being referred to there.”

A spokesperson for Macron told CNN that they had “no comment,” and that the recorded conversation “does not say anything special,” while a spokesperson for Rutte told them they do not comment on closed-door sessions. 

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (Washington Post)

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