Iranian athlete defects
Iran’s only female Olympic medalist has fled to the Netherlands, saying she will no longer be “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran.” Kimia Alizadeh, 21, took bronze in tae kwon do at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and she is now training with the Dutch team, but it’s unclear whether she has applied for asylum. “Of course she is welcome here,” said Dutch tae kwon do trainer Mimoun El Boujjoufi. “We know her qualities.” Alizadeh’s announcement comes just months after Iranian judo champ Saeid Mollaei defected and took Mongolian citizenship. He was angered at being ordered to throw a semifinal bout in last year’s World Judo Championships to avoid facing an Israeli in the final.
France, Germany, and the U.K. formally accused Iran this week of breaching the 2015 nuclear deal and said Tehran must get back in compliance or face sanctions. The European powers tried to keep the pact alive after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018. But following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran declared it would begin enriching uranium beyond levels allowed in the deal. That means Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would take Tehran to amass enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb, should it choose—could drop from a year to a few months by the end of 2020. Iran says its actions are permitted under an article in the deal that allows one party to “cease performing its commitments” in the event of “significant nonperformance” by other parties.
As part of its “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, the U.S. has deported dozens of Central American asylum seekers to Guatemala with no planning for their resettlement. In some cases, families said, they were put on U.S. government flights without knowing what country they were going to or what to do once they arrived. Of the more than 143 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala since the deportation program started last month, only five have applied for asylum there, reports The Washington Post. Many are believed to have headed north to try to enter the U.S. again. Plagued by the same gang and drug violence that bedevils Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is not a safe country. Last year, some 264,000 Guatemalans were detained at the U.S. border—more than any other nationality.
Charging for water
After years of drought, Panama is running out of fresh water to drink and is going to start charging ships that pass through its famous canal a water premium. The passage of a single ship through the 50-mile canal requires millions of gallons of freshwater to be pumped into the locks from nearby Lake Gatún. Much of that water is then released into the ocean. Every year, more than 12,000 cargo and passenger ships use the canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Each ship will now pay $10,000 to transit the waterway, plus another charge that will depend on Gatún’s water levels at the time of crossing. The new fees are on top of the $188,000 that the average ship pays to use the canal.
Pope vs. pope
A fight inside the Vatican took an unexpected turn this week after retired Pope Benedict XVI demanded his name be taken off a book that is widely seen as a critique of his successor. From the Depths of Our Hearts, co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, offers a staunch defense of priestly celibacy. It is being released just weeks before Pope Francis is expected to announce whether married men may be ordained in the Amazon to combat a shortage of priests there. Francis’ supporters claim that conservative clerics manipulated the 92-year-old Benedict into putting his name to the book. Following the outcry, Benedict said he no longer wished to be credited as co-author of the volume.
Army spies on critics
Colombia opened an investigation this week into bombshell claims that its military spied on politicians, judicial officials, and journalists who looked into alleged military crimes. The allegations, published by the newsweekly Semana, were based on confidential documents and interviews with military sources. Agents reportedly followed and surveilled Semana journalists, offered to pay someone $15,000 to install malware on the magazine’s computers, and sent one reporter a tombstone as a threat. In at least one case, sources said, information that was collected by the military was handed over to a politician from President Iván Duque’s Democratic Center party. Duque suggested a few “bad apples” in the military were responsible for the spying, and said they would be rooted out.
Russians hack Burisma
In an apparent attempt to interfere in the 2020 election, Russian military agents have hacked Burisma Holdings—the Ukrainian gas company at the heart of President Trump’s impeachment. Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, previously held a lucrative position on the company’s board, and the impeachment proceedings have been focused on Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Burisma and the Bidens. Cybersecurity firm Area 1 revealed the hacking attempt this week, saying “this is an early warning of what we have anticipated since the successful cyberattacks undertaken during the 2016 U.S. elections.” In 2016, Russian military hackers stole and leaked information from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have opened an investigation into whether Russia is trying to undermine Joe Biden’s presidential campaign by spreading disinformation.
American dies in prison
A 54-year-old auto-parts dealer from New York has died on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison, where he’d been locked up for six years. Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American father of two, was arrested by a military patrol in 2013 while visiting relatives in Cairo and held for five years before being charged under an anti-protest law. He was sentenced to 15 years in a mass show trial during which the regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi presented no evidence against him. After his sentencing, Kassem sent a handwritten letter begging President Trump to secure his release, saying he was diabetic and would not survive incarceration. The State Department raised the issue with Cairo to no avail; Trump has called el-Sissi “my favorite dictator.”
The entire Russian government resigned this week after President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping constitutional changes that could secure his hold on power long after his presidential term ends in 2024. The proposed constitutional amendments would strengthen the powers of the parliament and prime minister at the expense of the presidency. Putin’s critics claim he is looking for ways to retain control after his presidency ends, one option being to become prime minister with greater powers. He previously swapped places with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 to get around the constitution’s two-term limit for the presidency. The new scheme will “allow Putin to remain in charge for an indefinite period,” said analyst Kirill Rogov. Putin said the new constitution will be ratified by referendum.
Rising political star Shinjiro Koizumi has stunned Japan by announcing he will take paternity leave when his first child is born later this month. Like new mothers, Japanese fathers are entitled to a year of paid leave for each child, but almost none of them use any of that time. Koizumi, the environment minister, is going to take a mere two weeks off spread over three months, and he will work remotely, but his gesture is still a big deal in workaholic Japan. “I hope my taking paternity leave will lead the way in working styles to one where everyone can easily take child-care leave without hesitation in the Environment Ministry,” he said. Koizumi, 38, is the son of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and is seen as a likely future prime minister himself.
Taal Volcano, Philippines
Tens of thousands of people fled their homes in the Philippines this week after the Taal volcano suddenly erupted, spewing sulfur dioxide for miles and blanketing villages in inches of ash. The volcano—which sits 40 miles from the capital, Manila—is still rumbling, and scientists fear it might blow again more explosively. Past events might serve as a sign of what is to come: a catastrophic eruption in 1911 lasted for three days and killed 1,500 people. At least 450,000 people today live within Taal’s 8.5-mile blast radius. “It’s all in God’s hands now,” said Leonita Gonzales, a farmer whose banana palms were destroyed by ashfall. “We are not sure if we will have a home to return to.”
Iraq has asked the U.S. to develop a plan to withdraw its 5,300 troops from the country, but the Trump administration is refusing to do so. After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asked him to send representatives to Iraq to discuss withdrawal. “There are American forces entering Iraq and American drones in its sky without permission from the Iraqi government,” Mahdi said. Pompeo said Mahdi had mischaracterized the call, and insisted that the U.S. would continue its anti-ISIS mission. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the State Department and Pentagon are preparing to cut some $250 million in military aid to Iraq if Baghdad evicts U.S. troops.
Reuters, Newscom, Kassem family, Reuters ■