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U.S. Charges Venezuelan Leader With Drug Trafficking, Narco-Terrorism

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  • The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
  • The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
  • The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.

Maduro Charged

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.

The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.

FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.

“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning 

“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.

“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.” 

The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.

According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”

He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel. 

U.S. Ramps Up Efforts

Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.

While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.

First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.

Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.

That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.

The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.

The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether. 

Venezuela & the Coronavirus

While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.

Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.

But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.

Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence. 

“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.

“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”

Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced. 

“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)

International

U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.

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The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.


New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle

A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.

Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.

In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.

Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.

However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased. 

In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.

High Court Ruling

The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.” 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.

If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.

Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.

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

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International

Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe

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The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.


More Information About Omicron

Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.

One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.

Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa —  where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.

Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.

Studies on Vaccine Efficacy 

Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.

According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses. 

By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.

Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.

Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)

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40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox

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The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.


Camels Booted From Beauty Contest

More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.

The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.

However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”

Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.

An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.

“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”

While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.

In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (The Guardian) (ABC News)

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