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(ZUURBEKOM, South Africa) -- At least five people are dead and more than 40 people arrested in South Africa Saturday following an attack at a church in Zuurbekom, a town in the Gauteng Province of South Africa.

Four people were found shot and burnt to death in a car while a fifth victim, a security guard, was also fatally shot, local authorities said.

The National Commissioner of Police General Khehla John Sitole said the quick response by authorities averted even more destruction and death.

"I am certain that the speedy response by the joint security forces has averted what could have been a more severe blood bath," Sitole said in a statement Saturday. " ... It is rather unfortunate that such an incident takes place during a time when South Africa is being plagued by a deadly virus and violent crimes."

The South African Police Service and National Defense Force responded Saturday to reports of a shooting and an alleged hostage situation at the International Pentecostal Holiness Church at 3 a.m. local time.

Authorities do not believe a terrorist group is responsible for the attack, but "may have been motivated by a feud between conflicted parties of the church."

A group of armed people, police said, came to the church and allegedly attacked people who were inside, indicating that they were coming to take over the premises.

Responding authorities said they also rescued multiple men, women and children, who were said to be living in the compound and being allegedly held hostage.

Police said they have arrested over 40 suspects, including six people who have been taken to hospital.

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(NEW YORK) -- As President Donald Trump has vowed to punish those who destroy monuments in the U.S., a wooden sculpture of American first lady Melania Trump, near her hometown in Slovenia, was torched on July 4.

Authorities don't know who torched the life-size statue, carved by local folk artist Aleš "Maxi" Župevc, or why it was burned.

The damaged sculpture is of a rough-hewn Melania Trump, dressed in the pale-blue Ralph Lauren cashmere coat she wore at her husband's inauguration in January 2017.

Brad Downey, 40, a Kentucky-born artist based in Europe who commissioned the project in 2017, admits it sent mixed messages from the start, honoring the first lady.

"This anti-immigration narrative coming from Donald Trump, it is a blatant contradiction," he told ABC News. "To have a president, who is married to a legal immigrant, makes stopping immigration a cornerstone of his presidency.”

Officials are still looking for the alleged arsonist.

“Police are investigating the circumstances of the arson incident in the village of Rozno,” Robert Perc, police spokesman in Novo Mesto, told ABC News. “The owner of the statue filed criminal charges against unknown arsonists.”

“I did file a police report, because I was told it is the only way forward for an investigation to be launched,” Downey said. "I am only interested in finding the attackers, and talking to them, not pressing charges against them."

What he really wants, he says, is answers to two questions: "I would want to know who are they and why they did it?”

The statue's creator, Župevc, calls himself an amateur chainsaw sculptor and a professional pipe layer. Downey says he was inspired by the fact that Župevc was born the same month of the same year as the first lady, in the same hospital in the same nearby town.

The statue has drawn publicity and has attracted quite a few visitors, according to a local tourist organization. But the local audience gave the work mixed reviews.

"Why did he have to make her look like an evil stepmother of Pinocchio?” asked in one resident of nearby Sevnica, Melania's hometown.

"What a disgrace!” she added.

But another Sevnica resident told ABC News back in 2019, she liked the sculpture and its subject: "She is our beauty, no matter what, even here. She looks like she just walked out of a beautiful naïve painting."

The fact that it was set on fire on the night between the 4 and 5 of July, makes Downey think that it was not just a random drunk act or just some kids playing, he said.

“I really don’t know, but It could have been vandals on both sides: The left-leaning people due to monument destruction buzz or right-leaning people who think it is disrespectful,” Downey said.

The whole thing is very heavily damaged, Downey says. The blue part of the statue is more-less intact but the head has been blackened, the face is deeply burned and the back of the head is burned out like a huge hole. Luckily, he says, it was not structurally destroyed, making it possible to be removed.

“It looks like whoever had set the statue afire had put something like a tire around the head and then dumped gasoline,” Downey noted.

The statue was part of a project that also includes a short documentary film, and it sounds like Downey, a well-known contextual public artist in Europe, is thinking about a post-arson sequel.

When "the heavily damaged statue was removed on July 5 by the same lumberjacks that cut the linden tree from which the statue was made,” Downey told ABC News, “I also asked local villagers and firefighters, who put the statue down, not to give away their photos of the blackened and disfigured statue, so it would not become a vulgar meme.”

The “deeply burned” original statue is now wrapped in plastic and stored in Downey’s studio, waiting to be shown at an exhibition in the salt factory in Koper, a port city in Slovenia in September.

Later, Downey himself posted a video of the statue being removed on his Instagram account. Those images are likely to turn up in his documentary and it sounds like there could be a second statue in the picture.

“Last year, out of precaution, I made a silicon mold of the statue,” Downey said. “I will have to come back with a conceptual, artistic reply to the arson to keep the conversation going – maybe make a proper bronze statue in that same location.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


iStock/Oleksii Liskonih(WASHINGTON) -- BY: CONOR FINNEGAN

In a historic step, the Trump administration has sanctioned four Chinese officials and a regional security agency for the Chinese government's repressive campaign against ethnic minorities.

The economic penalties and visa bans come on the same day that the White House confirmed it is finalizing a ban on federal contracts and contractors using five Chinese companies, some of which have ties to the campaign against Uighurs. That ban could have a strong economic impact, essentially forcing big U.S. companies to choose between working with the U.S. government and the Chinese firms.

While it's unclear what kind of economic impact the sanctions will have, they are a strong symbol and a shot across the bow at China, which has detained over 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazaks and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities.

But they also come only after growing pressure on President Donald Trump to act against a now years-long campaign to imprison these minorities, strip them of their culture and religion, and reduce their populations through sterilization and other forms of birth control.

The sanctions target the top Chinese Communist Party official in charge in western Xinjiang province Chen Quanguo, his former deputy Zhu Hailun and the public security bureau there, its director Wang Mingshan and his predecessor Huo Liujun.

In addition to sanctioning all five, the State Department is also barring Chen, Zhu, Wang and their families from receiving U.S. visas.

The sanctions are the first that target individual officials and agencies associated with the repressive campaign, which the Chinese government initially denied and now says is a legitimate counter-terrorism operation against radical Islamists in the region.

Last week, a new research paper alleged that the campaign includes sterilizing the Uighur population through forced abortions, intrauterine contraceptives and imprisonment. Four U.S. government agencies also issued an advisory to U.S. businesses, warning they would face "legal risks" if their supply chains include the forced labor used in these internment camps.

The White House is now also finalizing another blow to business with China.

Russ Vought, the acting director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, confirmed to ABC News that OMB will ban Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua, and Hytera -- five Chinese companies with ties to the government -- from federal contracts.

"The danger our nation faces from foreign adversaries like China looking to infiltrate our systems is great. The Trump administration is keeping our government strong against nefarious networks like Huawei by fully implementing the ban on federal procurement," he said in a statement.

That means no U.S. federal agency or any government contractor will be allowed to do business with them without a waiver, including major U.S. corporations like Amazon, which reportedly received 1,500 cameras from Dahua in April alone, according to Reuters.

Dahua and Hikvision are among the leading sellers of surveillance equipment and cameras worldwide, Hytera of two-way radios, and Huawei and ZTE of telecommunications equipment and cell phones.

The U.S. has previously alleged that these firms have also provided equipment and support to the surveillance state built by the Chinese government in Xinjiang against the Uighurs and other minorities.

This heightened pressure from Trump's administration comes after the president's former National Security Advisor John Bolton alleged that Trump encouraged China's leader Xi Jinping to build the mass internment camps.

Trump has denied that's true, but he told Axios last month that he did prioritize his trade negotiations with Beijing and put on hold any sanctions over what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the "stain of the century" Thursday.

In a statement announcing the visa bans, Pompeo said the U.S. "will not stand idly by as the (Chinese Communist Party)" commits these atrocities.

Beyond the three officials and their families, Pompeo said the State Department would implement visa bans other Chinese officials "believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the unjust detention or abuse" of Uighurs, ethnic Kazaks and other minorities. U.S. law allows him to name the first three as a form of public shaming, while requiring the others' names to remain confidential.

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Papa Giovanni XXIII, the main hospital in Bergamo, Italy, has declared its intensive care unit COVID-free some 137 days after the first novel coronavirus patient was admitted.

When the announcement was made on Wednesday, hospital directors and staff members marked the occasion by remembering the victims with a minute's silence before breaking into a long applause "because we all deserved it," Luca Lorini, director of the hospital's emergency department, told the Italian news agency ANSA. "We dreamed of this goal and worked for such a long time to reach it."

The few remaining patients who'd battled the novel coronavirus have now tested negative, according to the hospital.

Elsewhere, the country's health ministry announced on Thursday there had been 229 new infections, mostly in hard-hit Lombardy, and 12 deaths over the preceding 24 hours.

"Despite all the controversy about the management of this tsunami, it is unlikely we could have handled it any better considering the little information we had to go on," Lorini told ANSA. "The number of dead and injured seemed incredible to us and made us doubt our own abilities."

As the contagion began raging through Italy, Bergamo was considered the epicenter, with the number of victims rising dramatically every day. The province was one of the hardest hit by the health emergency, and the main hospital, flooded with patients after the first arrived Feb. 23, transformed itself into once of Europe's largest ICUs by deploying a staff of about 400 doctors, nurses, assistants and cleaners.

The northern town, according to ANSA, reported about 6,000 coronavirus victims and had about 100 patients intubated at the peak of the epidemic, as the surrounding region, Lombardy, has accounted for about half of Italy's nearly 35,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Maria Beatrice Stassi, general manager of the hospital, told ANSA that doctors, nurses and staffers finally could turn their attention toward treating other illnesses and that they could return to their normal uniforms.

Stassi added that hopefully the downward trend of COVID-19 infections continued so those at her hospital never again would return to "that March-April nightmare we had to work in."

At the height of the emergency, army trucks were called in to Bergamo to transport coffins to remote cremation sites because local morgues were overwhelmed.

Funerals, which at that time weren't permitted, are now being held.

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(NEW YORK) -- The mayor of South Korea's capital, Seoul, was found dead early morning Friday local time, a rescue squad member told ABC News.

Mayor Park Won-soon was reported missing Thursday by his daughter, according to officials.

The rescue squad member, Shin Joon-Yong, said the team went into the park with five rescue dogs. Shin said he spotted a bag and water bottle not far from a hiking track, and then his partner's sniffer dog found the mayor's body.

He was wearing what appeared to be hiking clothes at the time he was found, according to Shin.

Police had been using drones and sniffer dogs across the city to locate him.

Officials have not yet commented on the circumstances of his death.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Selman Keles/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- The arrest of a highly regarded former journalist has set off major outcry among independent media outlets in Russia, which are calling the government's latest actions part of a burgeoning crackdown.

Ivan Safronov, accused of spying for the Czech Republic and United States, was arrested Tuesday morning by agents from Russia's domestic security service, the FSB, which has accused him of state treason, a charge that carries a possible 12- to 20-year prison term.

Until two months ago, Safronov was a reporter covering Russia's defense and space industries for a leading newspaper, Vedomosti, having spent a decade covering the same beat at another top paper, Kommersant. Since May, he has been a communications adviser for the head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos.

Safronov's lawyer told reporters on Tuesday the FSB accuses him of passing secret information to Czech intelligence about Russian arms deliveries to Africa and military activities in the Middle East. A Moscow court ordered him held for two months in pretrial detention in the city's Lefortovo jail.

Former colleagues and journalists from other publications protested his arrest outside FSB headquarters in Moscow on Tuesday, and more than two dozen were detained by police. Three of Russia's top news outlets, including his two former papers, published protests prominently on their sites, saying the arrest was intended to chill reporting in Russia.

Kommersant, where Safronov worked for a decade, wrote that the accusations seemed "absurd" and called him a "patriot." Another leading outlet, RBC, wrote that his arrest was "a signal" to Russian media and society not to write about secrets held by powerful people.

Treason cases are classified, meaning Safronov's trial will be held behind closed doors as even the charges brought against him are likely to remain murky.

His lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, told reporters on Tuesday the FSB alleges Safronov was recruited in 2012 by Czech intelligence and in 2017 allegedly was given the task of passing along intelligence about the arms deliveries and military operations. That information allegedly was shared with the United States, added Pavlov, who told reporters materials for the case filled seven volumes, suggesting the FSB had been building a case against Safronov for quite some time.

The Czech foreign ministry on Wednesday declined to comment when reached by ABC News.

Safronov, 30, is known as for breaking stories on Russia's highly closed defense sector and had worked in the Kremlin media pool, which travels with Putin. This isn't his first confrontation with authorities: Last year, he repeatedly was questioned by the FSB over an article he wrote about the sale of Russian warplanes to Egypt.

His father, Ivan Safronov, also was a defense reporter at Kommersant and in 2007 died after mysteriously falling from a window. His colleagues have said they believe he was murdered by Russia's security services over his work.

Russia's space agency, Roscomos, has said Safronov had no access to classified material in his role, which he had occupied for just two months. The allegations instead relate to a period when Safronov would have been working as a reporter at Kommersant.

Journalists and other experts said Safronov appears to have been targeted under an expanded definition of the treason law passed in 2012 in response to mass street protests against President Vladimir Putin.

Safronov's arrest, they said, suggests this law has now been turned on journalists amid a fresh crackdown that has coincided with moves by the Kremlin to extend Putin's rule beyond his term limits. Last week, the Kremlin won a referendum on constitutional changes that will allow Putin to remain in power until 2036.

Andrey Soldatov, a veteran journalist and expert on Russian security services, said authorities previously had avoided using the treason law against journalists but that Safronov's case showed the rules had changed.

It "is an absolutely new level of repression against journalism in the country," Soldatov wrote.

"The FSB is applying its paranoid definition of espionage to journalists -- and is going out of its way to make sure everyone knows. What's more, senior leaders have apparently sanctioned the action," Soldatov wrote in The Moscow Times.

The expanded law is so broad, Soldatov wrote, the FSB doesn't need to prove a person was spying, only that they were communicating with any "foreign organization" in order to accuse them of treason.

Safronov was arrested a day after a journalist was convicted in another high-profile case. Svetlana Prokopyeva had faced six years prison for a report critical of security services, but a judge instead fined her about $7,000.

Russian journalists also have compared Safronov's case to that of Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter whose arrest on crudely fabricated drugs charges last year sparked an exceptional outcry across elite Russian society, forcing authorities eventually to drop the case.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow on Tuesday tweeted that following Safronov's arrest, "It's starting to look like a concerted campaign against #MediaFreedom."

Russia's foreign ministry responded by tweeting, "Mind your own business."

The Kremlin has denied Safronov's arrest is related to his journalistic work and downplayed the media outcry as "emotional."

"Let's not confuse a public response with a media response," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in his daily briefing call. "We still presume that it has no relation to his journalistic activity."

It can't be ruled out he acted as a spy, Peskov added.

Soldatov, the security services expert, said in reality Safronov's arrest showed that the Kremlin has unleashed the security services to lay down new boundaries for what can be reported on in Russia.

"Putin has now entrusted the 'journalist question' to his security services," Soldatov wrote in The Moscow Times. "We should be very worried."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


OliverChilds/iStockBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- One person died and a least four were injured when a 65-foot crane collapsed onto an under-development apartment block in London on Wednesday.

The person who died, who has not been identified, was found and died at the scene, according to the London Ambulance Service.

Of the four injured, two were "treated for head injuries and taken to hospital," the London Ambulance Service tweeted. The other two were assessed but not taken to the hospital.

"A 20 meter crane [65 feet] has collapsed onto a block of flats under development and into two terraced houses on Compton Close," London Fire Brigade Assistant Commissioner Graham Ellis said earlier in a statement. "Our Urban Search and Rescue crews are undertaking a complex rescue operation and using specialist equipment to search the properties."

"This is a multi-agency response and is likely to be a protracted incident. I would ask people to avoid the area," he added.

The fire department was called at 2:39 p.m., and crews from surrounding stations descended on the scene. The London Ambulance Service tweeted that they had dispatched number of teams to the site of the collapse.

Aerial footage from the site shows the crane laying across an apartment block, with a section of the crane having smashed through the roof of an adjacent house.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


CT757fan/iStockBy LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News

(BAGHDAD) -- The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East is expressing confidence that talks with Iraq will keep U.S. military troops in that country.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Baghdad on Tuesday and met with new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, who has taken steps to take on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group that has attacked American forces.

"I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the true value that the coalition brings to the fight against Daesh (another name for ISIS) in Iraq, and I believe that going forward, they're going to want us to be with them," McKenzie said in an interview with a small number of reporters.

The U.S. still has more than 5,200 American troops in Iraq, assisting Iraqi security forces as they try to root out the last remnants of ISIS inside Iraq. The United States and Iraq began discussions in June about the future military presence of U.S. troops inside Iraq.

McKenzie believes the talks could result in a smaller U.S. troop presence "as the Iraqis get better at what they do," which is the desired outcome that the U.S. has been working towards in Iraq.

"I don't know what the long-term future is going to be, but I don't sense there's a there's a mood right now for us to depart precipitously and I'm pretty confident with that and we'll continue to work with the Iraqi leadership as we go forward," said McKenzie.

The general praised Kadhimi's recent actions against Khataib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-backed Shiite militia responsible for deadly rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq.

A U.S. military retaliation for such attacks late last year spiraled into a series of events that culminated in the U.S. military strike that killed Iran's General Qassem Soleimani’s in Baghdad and Iranian missile attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. That Iranian attack led McKenzie to move Patriot anti-missile batteries and other countermeasures into Iraq to protect American facilities.

McKenzie said the raid in northern Iraq on a KH outpost was planned and carried out by the Iraqi military from “soup to nuts” and that the new Iraqi Prime Minister needs all the support he can in the effort. That's because taking on the militia also means Kadhimi has to be careful of how Iran could respond to his tough line.

“He’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” said McKenzie.

“It is important that we recognize that Iran by proximity alone will always have influence in Iraq," said Mick Mulroy, an ABC News consultant and until recently the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. " We have to have reasonable expectations on what the Prime Minister can do."

But the threat of rocket attacks against U.S. facilities continues. McKenzie confirmed that this past weekend a C-RAM defensive weapons system brought down a Katyusha rocket headed towards the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.

As the talks with Iraq continue in the near future, McKenzie said he anticipates the Iraqi government will continue to maintain the partnership with the U.S. military, NATO and other coalition members currently operating in Iraq.

“The close relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi military not only defeated the ISIS caliphate in Iraq, but is key to ensuring their enduring defeat," said Mulroy.

"This partnership is also critical to the continuing development of the Iraqi military to defend itself from Iran," he added. "It is important that the Iraqi government push back against Iranian-backed militias."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Myriam Borzee/iStockBy JACK ARNHOLZ, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's 65-year-old president who has consistently minimized the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, announced Tuesday that he tested positive for coronavirus.

Appearing on live television, the far-right president said he took a coronavirus test Monday after developing symptoms, including a high temperature.

"I didn't know what would be the result. But finally it was positive," Bolsonaro told reporters speaking from the presidential residence in Brasilia Tuesday.

"There is no reason for fear. That's life. Life goes on. I do thank God for my life and the role I have received to decide the future of this great nation that is called Brazil," he said.

Bolsonaro said in the announcement that while he feels better than he did the day before and wants to take a walk, he is respecting doctors' recommendations. He also confirmed he is taking hydroxychloroquine, which President Donald Trump has also touted as a treatment for COVID-19.

Brazil's leader has been criticized at home and abroad for his lax response to the coronavirus pandemic, dismissing it as a "little cold" at the onset of the crisis.

"I was not surprised [by the coronavirus test result]," Bolsonaro said Tuesday. "I am president of the Republic; I am at the front line of the combat."

In late June, a federal judge ordered the president of South America's largest country to wear a face covering while in public or receive a fine of nearly $400 a day. The decision came after the president repeatedly appeared in public without a mask.

Despite the court order, Bolsonaro has since attended several public events without a mask, appearing at a July 4th celebration at the American Embassy without a face covering this weekend. The president was also photographed with the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman at the event.


Na Embaixada dos EUA, celebrando o 4 de julho, dia da independência americana.

— Ernesto Araújo (@ernestofaraujo) July 4, 2020


With coronavirus-related deaths topping 65,000 in Brazil, Bolsonaro has lost many high-profiles supporters and has faced governmental resignations since the outbreak worsened in the country.

The president fired one of the health ministers for supporting restrictions imposed by regional governors, as Bolsonaro publicly undermined them and rallied his supporters to disobey them.

A second health minister resigned after openly disagreeing with Bolsonaro over chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug related to hydroxychloroquine.

The president's diagnosis comes a day after his son accused those criticizing his father's response to COVID-19 of wishing Bolsonaro's death.

"The immense number of people rooting for the death of the head of the executive right now should trigger an immediate show of solidarity from other [political] leaders," Carlos Bolsonaro wrote in a tweet Monday night.

As of Tuesday, Brazil has over 1.6 million coronavirus cases, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The president has been tested three times before for COVID-19, all of which he said have come back negative.

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iStock/Yasmine Issa(NEW YORK) -- BY: HATEM MAHER

A hunger-striking medical student from New Jersey was released from a Cairo jail after serving more than a year in pre-trial detention for holding aloft a sign that read "Freedom to All Prisoners" in the iconic Tahrir Square, the human rights advocacy group that represents him said on Monday.

Mohamed Amashah, who is 24 and holds dual American-Egyptian citizenship, flew home on Monday following his release a day earlier, the Washington-based Freedom Initiative group said in a statement.

"Yesterday Egyptian-American political prisoner Mohamed Amashah was released from Egyptian prisons after 486 days of arbitrary detention," the statement read. "Mohamed landed in Dulles International Airport this morning and returned home to Jersey City, New Jersey to be with his loved ones."

Amashah started a hunger strike in March over fears that he might get infected with the coronavirus; Egypt's crammed jail cells are notorious for their harsh conditions and poor hygiene standards.

The rights-group Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms claimed last month that more than a dozen detainees in Cairo's Tora prison had contracted the highly contagious virus.

However, the Egyptian government denied the existence of any outbreaks in prisons, confirming only that an employee at the Tora prison had tested positive for the coronavirus after he died in May. The country has been halting prison visits by lawyers and families since March, citing COVID-19 worries.

Amashah, who was arrested in April 2019, faced charges of "misusing social media and aiding a terrorist group to achieve its goals," referring to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Rights groups accuse the state of filing similar "trumped-up charges" against all dissidents, regardless of their political affiliations. The Egyptian government denies that, insisting that all detainees face due legal process.

Amashah's release follows that of another dual Egyptian-American citizen. Reem Mohamed Desouky, a Pennsylvania teacher, was freed in early May after being held for almost 10 months for criticizing the government on Facebook.

In January, Mustafa Kassem, another U.S. citizen, died in a Cairo prison following a lengthy hunger strike, prompting Republican and Democratic lawmakers to call for sanctions against Egypt's government and a review of U.S. foreign aid to the country.

"Amashah was forced to recuse his Egyptian Citizenship in exchange for his freedom. This allowed the government to use the foreigner deportation law to deport him out of the country," Mohamed Soltan, the head of Freedom Initiative group, told ABC News.

"His release comes as a result of private and public pressure on the Egyptian government by the US administration and bipartisan congressional members in key committees demanding his release."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


samxmeg/iStockBy BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- While Hong Kong’s new national security law may have caused some well-known activists to flee the city or censor what they say, Joshua Wong appears to be standing his ground.

"We will never give up and surrender to Beijing,” said Wong today outside a court where he pleaded not guilty to charges related to a pro-democracy protest last year.

His fellow activist, Agnes Chow, pleaded guilty.

It’s the second time Wong has faced the public since the controversial law was passed late on June 30.

The legislation covers secession, subversion and terrorism, with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Despite authorities arguing it will only impact a small group of people in Hong Kong, Wong said, “it's affecting the daily life of Hong Kongers.”

That’s as Hong Kong authorities confirm that some public library books, including one co-authored by Wong, are being reviewed to see whether they violate the law.

Another prominent Hong Kong activist, Nathan Law, fled the city last week over fears he would be targeted. Law has vowed to continue to garner international support for Hong Kong from abroad.

Beijing has argued that the law is required to curtail the unrest that gripped the city for months last year but critics say it erodes the freedoms that are meant to be safeguarded in the ‘‘One Country Two Systems" framework made when the city was handed back to China from Britain in 1997.

Meanwhile, the first person to be charged under the national security law was denied bail today and will next appear in court on October 6, meaning they could be remanded for three months.

The Hong Kong resident was arrested after allegedly driving a motorcycle into police during protests on July 1.

He was carrying a banner with a political slogan that is now outlawed.

He’s among 10 people so far arrested for allegedly violating the wide-ranging law that has raised fear among Hong Kong citizens.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


iStock/malerapasoBy: PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Data scientists and independent election observers have claimed statistical analysis suggests there was massive falsification of votes in a referendum this week that overwhelming approved constitutional changes to grant Russian President Vladimir Putin the right to extend his rule until 2036.

The week-long referendum on a package of constitutional amendments that "reset" Putin's term limits concluded in Russia on Wednesday with a result hailed by the Kremlin as a "triumph." The official tally showed 77.92% of voters backing the amendments and 21.27% against, with a turnout of 65%.

Those numbers are significantly above what most independent political observers and pollsters said would be realistic to expect. The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, a day later declared it a "triumphant referendum on confidence" in Putin.

But independent election observers and opposition figures have said the size of the result actually was the product of unprecedented fraud made possible because the vote was deliberately held without the legal safeguards typically applied to voting in Russia.

Roman Udot, who's monitored Russian elections for two decades and runs Golos, a nongovernmental organization that collects reports of possible ballot fraud, told ABC News a day after voting ended: "The falsification that was found yesterday, it was the national record since the fall of the Soviet Union."

A prominent Russian physicist, Sergey Shpilkin, on Thursday published what he said was statistical evidence showing results of the referendum far more dubious than in previous contests under Putin.

Shpilkin previously suggested there's a clear indicator of fraud: If polling stations with abnormally high turnouts also return unusually high results that favor of one outcome, that correlation indicates either ballot stuffing or that voters were pressured into voting a certain way.

The indicator is clearly visible in graphs tracking voting results. In manipulated votes, according to the theory, there will be a spike in the number of ballots for the desired result around turnouts that exceed the average. In fair votes, results are expected to grow proportionally and remain relatively flat across polling sites.

In graphs posted by Shpilkin, using data from the constitutional referendum that compares results with turnout, there's a huge spike in votes in favor of the amendments among turnouts 70% or greater.

Shpilkin's analysis of 88 million votes shows many polling stations with above average turnouts returned results favoring the amendments of nearly 100%. The correlation is particularly strong in Russia's most authoritarian regions, such as Chechnya, which reported a turnout of 95%, with over 97% of votes in favor.

His evidence suggests that as many as 22 million votes -- roughly 1 in 4 -- may have been cast fraudulently, he told Forbes Russia on Thursday.

Shpilkin said he estimated the real turnout was likely 44%, not 65%. He calculated the real percentage of votes in favor of the amendments to be around 65%, compared with 35% against.

When compared to the actual, lower turnout, that meant only around 29% of Russia's eligible voters -- about 31 million people -- supported the amendments, he wrote. Many opponents also boycotted the vote in protest, suggesting the real number of those against the changes likely was higher still.

Shpilkin has conducted similar analysis for other votes in Russia, including Putin's 2018 presidential election and the 2011 parliamentary elections during which ballot stuffing was so egregious it prompted mass street demonstrations.

In an article for Proekt, he wrote that the falsification seen in the referendum "exceeded anything seen before" in recent Russian elections, calling it an "unprecedented situation."

Russia's elections commission and Interior ministry have said the vote took place without any serious violations. The head of the elections commission, Ella Pamfilova, praised the voting process, saying it took place "with maximum openness."

"The vote happened fairly, the results are reliable and the legitimacy of the results of the vote are indisputable," she said at a briefing on Saturday.

Before the vote, the Kremlin had portrayed the referendum as largely unrelated to Putin's future, saying the constitution needed to be updated to reflect modern Russian society. Russians were asked to vote a single "yes" or "no" on an entire package containing more than 200 amendments, including social welfare guarantees as well as insertions meant to attract conservative voters, such as a ban on same-sex marriage.

The key amendment, however, reset the count on Putin's presidential terms from four to zero, meaning he'll be able to run for two more six-year terms in 2024 when he otherwise would have had to step aside. Assuming he's victorious in those races, Putin, who's been in power for 20 years and would be ruling while in his 80s, would be the longest-ruling leader in Russian history.

The amendments in reality already had been approved by Russia's parliament and the referendum had little legal force. It was meant to provide a stamp of legitimacy to the changes, however, so authorities sought a high turnout. Before the vote, independent Russian media reported regional authorities had received instructions from Putin's administration to deliver a resounding result, with a turnout of at least 55%.

That posed a challenge because independent polling showed many Russians were indifferent to the vote, amid a long-term erosion in Putin's approval ratings. A survey by the state polling agency VTsIOM in May showed fewer than 28% of Russians "trust" Putin, down from over 47% in just two years.

The week of the vote, Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only non-government polling agency, told ABC News that his polling suggested Putin's decision to reset his term limits was highly divisive among Russians, with around 40% supporting it and 30% opposing it. That number shifted in the Kremlin's favor when looking at those who intended to vote -- Volkov said at the time he believed a 55% turnout would be "rather good" for the authorities.

The Kremlin arranged an "ad-hoc" vote, which didn't meet criteria to make it a legal referendum, meaning it was not obliged to adhere to strict measures intended to prevent fraud. Election monitors said that resulted in a situation where monitoring the vote was impossible.

The referendum was held over seven days, in what authorities said was to facilitate social distancing amid Russia's worsening coronavirus epidemic. Far more people also were allowed to vote from home or at workplaces, and in Moscow and St. Petersburg online voting was encouraged.

Why is Vladimir Putin racing to amend Russia's constitution?

Election monitors like Udot said those adjustments greatly facilitated fraud. Ballots were kept in polling stations overnight without observers. An election commission member in Moscow told The Associated Press last week he was seeing hundreds more votes being brought from alleged "home voters" than was feasibly possible.

"Their hands were untied," Udot said, saying he had never seen anything like it.

His organization, Golos said, has received 2,100 reports of violations.

Alongside allegations of ballot stuffing, there were widespread reports of public sector workers being pressured into voting. State companies received instructions directing them to ensure employees voted, according to news outlets including Reuters. Some voters told journalists they had been registered to vote by their employers without their knowledge.

Reuters sent journalists to monitor a polling station in a Moscow suburb for seven days. Its official turnout was 43%. But average turnout for the rest of the suburb where it was located was 83%. And in two polling stations located in the same school building, but where Reuters did not have observers, the turnouts were 87% and 85%.

Those trying to monitor the vote also sometimes encountered resistance, Reuters reported. A journalist in St. Petersburg had his arm broken as police tried to remove him from a polling station where alleged fraud was reported.

As Udot came to meet with ABC News on Thursday he was ambushed by a crew from a pro-Kremlin television channel, NTV. The channel frequently produces highly edited reports smearing Kremlin critics as Western agents. The reporters harassed Udot for an hour, asking him why he was talking with American journalists. Udot said he was forced to call the police to intervene.

Shortly thereafter, NTV published a report falsely suggesting Udot had attacked the network's own journalist.

"It happens every time after and before elections," he told ABC News afterwards. "Our phones are tapped -- when we agree to a meeting with foreign diplomats or journalists, all of a sudden a TV crew or some stringer will appear."

"We are showing the truth," he added. "And that truth destroys their house of cards. That is why we are attacked."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


iStock/malerapasoBy: PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The Kremlin this week won a referendum on constitutional changes allowing President Vladimir Putin potentially to extend his rule until 2036, a vote that critics and election monitors have denounced as rigged.

The vote produced an overwhelming result in favor of a package of amendments -- officially 77.9% supporting, 21.3% against -- that the Kremlin hailed it as a "triumphant referendum of confidence" in Putin.

Russia's Central Elections Commission and Interior ministry have said voting occurred without any serious violations.

But independent election monitors claimed the process included unprecedented fraud, with authorities throwing out key safeguards to prevent ballot stuffing or public workers being pressured into voting.

The package of amendments included resetting Putin's term counts from four to zero, meaning he could run for two additional six-year terms in 2024 instead of stepping down. Putin could remain in office until his 80s.

But why did Putin hold the vote now, four years before his term expires? And what will it mean for Russia?

ABC News' Patrick Reevell explains.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Official White House Photo by Andrea HanksBy Victor Ordonez and Conor Finnegan, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Several branches of the U.S. government on Wednesday warned private companies against using supply chains tied to forced labor camps in China's Xinjiang province. The advisory was issued shortly after U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities in Newark, New Jersey, seized about $800,000 worth imported goods from China.

Xinjiang, China, is where an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are facing an alleged expansive campaign of repression, including forced sterilization, destruction of religious sites and mass "re-education" camps.

The shipments seized Wednesday contained about 13 tons of hair products suspected to be made with human hair that originated in Xinjiang, indicating potential human right abuses of forced child labor and imprisonment, according to a CBP statement.

“The production of these goods constitutes a very serious human rights violation, and the detention order is intended to send a clear and direct message to all entities seeking to do business with the United States that illicit and inhumane practices will not be tolerated in U.S. supply chains,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade.

CBP detained the shipment per a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on hair products manufactured by Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd. issued on June 17. The order instructed ports of entry nationwide to detain all products from Meixin based on “information that reasonably indicated that they are manufactured with the use of prison labor.”

Wednesday's advisory was jointly issued by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The advisory warns private companies operating within the U.S. to be aware of the large-scale human rights abuses against Muslim minority groups as well as “deceptive practices employed by the [Chinese] government in Xinjiang.” The advisory noted the possibility of criminal prosecution and other legal ramifications private companies may face if caught maintaining supply chains linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“CEOs should read this notice closely and be aware of the reputational, economic, and legal risks of supporting such an assault on human dignity," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference Wednesday.

Beyond labor and goods from Xinjiang, the advisory warns U.S. companies from doing business with firms that are reliant on forced labor elsewhere in China. It also warns companies against assisting in the construction of the "re-education" camps or contributing to the government’s surveillance system in the region.

Given the latest reports about a mass sterilization campaign, which the Chinese government has denied, Pompeo was asked whether the U.S. considers the crackdown on Muslim minorities like the Uighurs to be genocide.

"The United States takes seriously our obligation to preserve human rights -- human rights of the people in China,” said Pompeo, calling on allies and Muslim nations to also pressure Beijing. “We'll continue to do that. We're constantly evaluating those actions against the legal norms and standards for the world.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(NEW YORK) -- Santiago Manuin, one of the most celebrated defenders of Peru's Amazon rainforest and the leader of the Awajún tribe, whose vast and besieged territory spans the country's mountainous northern region along the Ecuador border, died on Wednesday of COVID-19. He was 63.

Manuin devoted his life to defending his tribe and their ancestral land, which in recent decades had endured illegal gold mining and logging, persistent threats linked to narco-trafficking and state-sanctioned oil and gas operations.

In a 2019 interview with ABC News, Manuin described the significance of his tribe's territory and the importance of defending it.

"Our land is tied to our existence as a people," he said. "It's an essential space where we build a life for our families. As Awajún, our forests give us natural resources and animals. We're part of this natural world, and so we must defend it."

In 2009, Manuin nearly died defending Awajún territory after he was shot eight times by Peruvian security forces. The incident, referred to as "the Bagua Massacre," occurred when police fired on thousands of Awajún and Wampis tribespeople who were blocking a jungle highway to protest a U.S.-Peru trade agreement that would've opened up land in the Amazon for gas, oil and lumber extraction. More than 30, both officers and natives, died in the clash.

"The Peruvian government behaved badly, and regretfully we both learned lessons -- the Awajún people and the Western society," Manuin recalled. "I keep learning the importance of dialogue. Violence brings no solutions."

A stoic champion for his tribe of more than 50,000, Manuin rejected the commodification of the Amazon's natural resources, which are deeply woven into the Awajún cosmovision.

"For the Westerner, the Indigenous person is an impediment to development because we refuse to destroy the land. That's why they label us anti-development," he said. "Indigenous peoples are not anti-development. We protect the forest and live for the forest. Our spirituality is tied to it. We don't need to go to the largest churches to pray. We pray within this natural world. We live in this plenitude."

Manuin, lionized by many in his own country as a social justice crusader and fierce environmentalist, was thrust into an international spotlight in 2018 when he crowned Pope Francis with a feathered headdress during the pontiff's visit to the Amazon region as part of the Catholic Church's Amazon Synod.

The Awajún tribe is one of the largest in Peru's Amazon, and their territory spans four distinct regions. Manuin served as president of the Awajún Permanent Council, the tribe's largest governing body. Under his leadership, the Awajún have endeavored to create an autonomous territorial government, a quasi-independent region with the right to protect its territory from outsiders.

"We occupy 30,000 square kilometers. We'll be able to self-govern and demand that the Peruvian State respects the totality of our territory and forbids any extractive company from entering without prior consultation," Manuin said.

In 1994, Manuin won the international Reina Sofia Prize for his defense of the Amazon, and in 2014 he was awarded Peru's National Prize for Human Rights for a life lived in service of Indigenous peoples and the rainforest.

"I was consecrated in the defense of my forest and the fundamental rights of my people. I was consecrated despite everything and had to accept that reality. I have a very big vision. And this vision is what I am completing now -- and with total pleasure," Manuin said.

At least 9,800 in Peru have died from the novel coronavirus, which has devastated tribes in the vast Amazon region as extreme poverty, limited access to health care and communal lifestyles incompatible with social distancing have left them particularly vulnerable.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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