Poisoned spy recovering
A poisoned former Russian double agent has been released from the hospital and is continuing treatment in a safe house at an undisclosed location in the U.K. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were poisoned with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury in March in what British authorities say was a Russian government hit. Intelligence officials are now discussing whether to relocate the two to another country with new identities—which might require them to undergo plastic surgery. In a sign Russia is still interested in Skripal, Russia’s Channel 1 aired an interview this week with a woman it said was the ex-spy’s mother. “I haven’t seen my son in 14 years,” the tearful woman said, asking British authorities to let her speak to him. “I want to hold him tight. I’m 90, and I don’t pose a danger to anyone.”
Novice prime minister
The two anti–European Union parties that won the most votes in March’s Italian elections—the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement—have clinched a pact to govern together, naming an unknown law professor as prime minister. A neutral, compromise figure, Giuseppe Conte, 53, teaches at the University of Florence and has no political experience. The populist coalition agreement calls for a $120 billion stimulus package of tax cuts and spending increases, a crackdown on migrants, and the lifting of sanctions against Russia. The new government, which has been approved by President Sergio Mattarella, also opposes EU rules on the euro. League leader Matteo Salvini said Italy would not “continue on a path of poverty, precariousness, and immigration,” vowing, “Italians first!”
Candidates bash Trump
In a televised foreign policy debate last week, the four main candidates vying for Mexico’s presidency all vowed to stand up to President Trump. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist who is leading presidential polls by double digits, declared: “Trump is going to have to learn to respect us. That I can guarantee you.” Ricardo Anaya, the candidate of a left-right coalition who is polling a distant second, was tougher, saying, “You can’t appease tyrants and bullies. You have to confront them.” The election is July 1, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose popularity plummeted and never recovered after he invited Trump to Mexico during the 2016 U.S. campaign, can’t run again.
A Utah man who has been held for two years without trial in Venezuela’s most notorious prison pleaded for help last week in a cellphone video shot during a prison riot. Joshua Holt, 26, was detained on charges of espionage and terrorism in 2016 when he traveled to the country to wed a fellow Mormon he had met online. In the video, posted to his Facebook page, he begged the U.S. government to secure his release, saying, “People are trying to break in my room and kill me.” Other inmates at El Helicoide prison—many of them locked up by the country’s leftist regime for alleged political crimes—uploaded short videos in which they claimed they were tortured daily by guards. A legal aid group said prison officials have refused to release inmates who have been granted parole.
European Union lawmakers berated Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week for failing to safeguard billions of users’ private data and for enabling the spread of fake news on the platform. Zuckerberg apologized at the meeting with leaders of the European Parliament for Facebook’s tools being used “for harm,” but was able to dodge many tough questions because of the format of the grilling. Lawmakers spent the first hour asking all their questions, time many of them used for grandstanding and lecturing, leaving Zuckerberg only half an hour to respond. As a result, he was able to cherry-pick topics and chose not to address whether Facebook is a monopoly or how it uses data from its WhatsApp messaging service. “I asked you six yes or no questions,” said Belgian lawmaker Philippe Lamberts. “I got not a single answer.”
In an unprecedented mass resignation, all 34 of Chile’s Catholic bishops stepped down last week after a papal investigation found “grave negligence” in the Chilean church’s handling of a massive clerical sex abuse scandal. Some 80 Chilean priests have been accused of abuse since 2000, and their superiors are accused of covering up the crimes and destroying evidence. Victims said one bishop, Juan Barros, was actually present when a senior priest, Father Fernando Karadima, was abusing them. Pope Francis, who appointed Barros, defended him during a papal visit to Chile in January, calling the victims’ testimony “slander”; the pope has since apologized for his comments. Now Francis must decide which, if any, of the resignations to accept.
Cash for Trump access?
President Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was secretly paid at least $400,000 to arrange a White House meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and President Trump last June, sources in Kiev told the BBC this week.
Cohen—whose business dealings are being investigated by U.S. federal prosecutors—was not registered as a representative of Ukraine, as required by U.S. law; he denies arranging the talks. There is no indication Trump knew of the payment. Soon after the Oval Office meeting, Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency scrapped its investigation into Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who had been paid millions by pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. In March, the U.S. agreed to sell Kiev the anti-tank missiles it wanted to fight pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Health workers in Congo battling an outbreak of Ebola began an immunization campaign this week, using an experimental vaccine that proved effective when the deadly virus raged in West Africa from 2014 to ’16. At least 45 cases of Ebola have been reported in Congo, including at least four in Mbandaka, a city of 1 million people; at least 26 people have died in the current outbreak. The virus causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding and spreads through contact with bodily fluids; its fatality rate is about 50 percent. This is Congo’s ninth outbreak since 1976, and particularly worrisome because cases have occurred many miles apart in multiple towns. “The risk of spreading within the country and to neighboring nations remains real,” said Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Chinese authorities have arrested up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs and sent them to re-education camps, where many have been tortured. The mass incarceration ramped up last year when Chen Quanguo—who oversaw a similar ethnic crackdown in Tibet—was appointed Communist Party secretary for the western province of Xinjiang, the Uighurs’ homeland. A Turkic-speaking Muslim people, Uighurs have long been oppressed in China, but now police have begun hauling people away from their homes at night and taking them to converted factories, hospitals, and schools for “patriotic re-education.” Their children are placed in Chinese-run orphanages. The camps were first reported on by Uighur-American journalists for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia; dozens of their relatives have been rounded up in retaliation.
Another sonic attack?
The U.S. State Department issued a health alert for American citizens in China this week after a U.S. government employee complained of strange sounds and feelings of pressure in the head—symptoms similar to the mysterious ailments that afflicted U.S. diplomats in Cuba last year. The employee, stationed in the city of Guangzhou, reported the symptoms from late last year through last month; the employee was sent to the U.S. for evaluation and found to have suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. China says it is investigating. Starting in November 2016, at least two dozen Americans based in Cuba reported hearing strange sounds and suffering headaches and hearing loss. They were later diagnosed with brain injuries and then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said they were victims of “health attacks.”
Arresting women activists
Saudi Arabia this week arrested at least nine people—seven women and two men—who had campaigned for the right of women to drive, even though the country is due to grant that right next month. Among those detained was the country’s most prominent feminist activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested while studying abroad in the United Arab Emirates and brought back to a Saudi prison. The government said those detained were traitors who had collaborated with “enemies overseas.” The arrests are intended “to stifle any kind of mobilization in Saudi Arabia that comes from the grassroots level,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a London-based expert on the kingdom. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to make clear that “the rights of Saudi women and every Saudi citizen come from him.”
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Hauling away the loot
Malaysian police confiscated more than 350 boxes and bags stuffed with cash, jewelry, watches, and designer handbags last week from six properties belonging to former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. Officers said the haul included at least $37 million in cash in various currencies. Najib, whose Malay nationalist party was voted out two weeks ago after controlling the government for more than 60 years, is accused of massive corruption. The former prime minister and his wife are key suspects in a scandal that saw $4.5 billion disappear from a government investment fund, 1MDB, founded by Najib in 2009. Authorities say that $730 million from the fund was transferred to Najib’s personal accounts. ■