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Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study

Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study

Cuba has dismissed the findings of a US academic study which found brain abnormalities in US diplomats who worked in Cuba.

The research follows accusations by the US that Cuba carried out "sonic attacks", after several diplomats complained of unexplained symptoms including dizziness and hearing loss.

The study's authors said brain scans showed the diplomats' symptoms were "not imagined".

But Cuba said the results were unclear.

What did the study reveal?
The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was led by professors at the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers took MRI scans of 44 US diplomats and family members who had been stationed in Cuba and compared them to a control group of healthy volunteers.

The authors said the diplomats showed less white matter which could affect the brain's ability to send messages as well as other changes affecting auditory and spatial functions.

Ragini Verma, one of the study's co-authors, said the scans had shown "something happened to the brains" of the diplomats.

"Whatever happened was not due to a pre-existing condition, because we test for that," Prof Verma added. "It's not imagined, all I can say is that there is truth to be found."

What brought it about?
Late in 2016, staff at the US embassy in Havana and some of their relatives started complaining about symptoms ranging from dizziness, loss of balance, hearing loss, anxiety and something they described as "cognitive fog".

The US said two dozen of its staff members plus some of their family members had been affected by "auditory sensations" in 2017. The US government recalled most of its diplomatic personnel from Cuba in response.

The US state department sent 44 of those who had reported symptoms to the University of Pennsylvania's brain trauma centre for MRI scans.

The study published on Tuesday is based on those scans.

What could be causing the symptoms?
The US government has never officially spoken about what they think the cause of the unusual symptoms could be.

US media have speculated they could be the result of an attack with a covert sonic weapon. But Canada, which also cut its embassy staff in Cuba after at least 14 of its citizens reported symptoms, has discounted the idea of a "sonic attack" being the cause.

The study published on Tuesday does not draw any conclusions about the cause of the symptoms either.

How has Cuba reacted?
Cuba has always denied being behind the incidents and has taken umbrage at the US calling them "attacks".

The BBC's Will Grant in Havana says that this particular study was quickly panned by Cuban scientists who have also been researching the possible cause.

Our correspondent reports that the Cuban lead scientist, Prof Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, was so frustrated by the study's methodology and "inconclusive results" that he and his fellow scientists took the unusual step of convening a news conference.

Prof Valdés-Sosa saRead More – Source



US denounces Venezuela aircraft’s ‘unsafe approach’

US denounces Venezuela aircraft’s ‘unsafe approach’

The United States military has accused a Venezuelan fighter aircraft of endangering the crew of a US navy plane in international airspace.

The Venezuelan plane made an "unsafe approach" and "aggressively shadowed" the US reconnaissance aircraft over the Caribbean Sea, US Southern Command said on Sunday.

Venezuela said the US plane had entered Venezuelan airspace without permission.

Relations between the two countries have been tense for years.

The incident happened on Friday, the same day the US treasury department imposed sanctions on four members of Venezuela's military counterintelligence directorate (DGCIM) for their alleged role in the physical abuse and death of a Venezuelan navy captain, Rafael Acosta.

Capt Acosta's death, which a leaked forensic report suggests occurred after he was severely beaten, asphyxiated and given electric shocks while in DGCIM custody, caused an international outcry earlier this month.

What does the US say happened?
US Southern Command took the unusual step of not only releasing their description of the incident but also publishing video of the Russian-made jet on Twitter.

In a further tweet, US Southern Command said the action demonstrated "Russia's irresponsible military support to Maduro's illegitimate regime and underscores Maduro's recklessness & irresponsible behaviour, which undermines international rule of law and efforts to counter illicit trafficking".

The US is one of the more than 50 nations which does not recognise President Maduro and his government, arguing that the 2018 polls which saw him re-elected to a second term were neither free nor fair.

But Russia continues to support Mr Maduro and has in the past said it will do "everything required" to support him as Venezuela's "legitimate president".

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The reference to Russia's military support in the tweet posted by Southern Command shows their annoyance not just with the fact their plane was intercepted but also that it was a fighter aircraft developed by Russia's Sukhoi Aviation Corporation.

What does Venezuela say?
The Venezuelan armed forces' strategic operational command also took to Twitter [in Spanish] to reject the allegations made by the US military.

The US aircraft, it said, had entered Venezuelan airspace without complying with the protocols of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which "put the security of air traffic at risk".

It alleges the US aircraft acted "irresponsibly" by turning off its transponder to avoid being identified.

The Venezuelan military says two of its fighter jets intercepted the US plane and escorted it out of Venezuelan airspace.

What's the background?
This is the latest in a series of spats between the US and the Venezuelan militRead More – Source



Amazon deforestation: Brazil’s Bolsonaro dismisses data as ‘lies’

Amazon deforestation: Brazil’s Bolsonaro dismisses data as ‘lies’

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has accused his own country's national space institute of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon.

He said the institute was smearing Brazil's reputation abroad by publishing data showing a dramatic increase in deforestation there.

The far-right president said he wanted to meet with the head of the agency to discuss the issue.

The National Space Research Institute (Inpe) says its data is 95% accurate.

Mr Bolsonaro's comments on Friday came a day after preliminary satellite data released by Inpe showed that more than 1,000 sq km (400 sq miles) of the rainforest had been cleared in the first 15 days of July – an increase of 68% from the entire month of July 2018.

Speaking in a meeting with foreign journalists, Mr Bolsonaro said the data "doesn't relate to the reality".

Scientists say the Amazon has suffered losses at an accelerated rate since Mr Bolsonaro took office in January, with policies that favour development over conservation.

As the largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming.

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Official figures suggest that the biggest reason to fell trees there is to create new pastures for cattle.

Over the past decade, previous governments had managed to reduce deforestation with concerted action by federal agencies and a system of fines.

But Mr Bolsonaro and his ministers have criticised the penalties and overseen a dramatic fall in confiscations of timber and convictions for environmental crimRead More – Source




Nicaragua mothers mourn on eve of Sandinista revolution’s anniversary

The people of Masaya say rebellion runs in their blood. But there is no-one in the Nicaraguan city of whom that is more true than Father Edwin Román.

"Sandino was my grandmother's brother, my great-uncle," says the priest of Nicaragua's revolutionary hero and rebel leader, Augusto César Sandino.

Few can boast such a direct familial link to the man who ended the United States' occupation of Nicaragua in 1933 and whose name would become synonymous with another revolution in Nicaragua decades later.

Sandino's great-nephew is a quieter kind of rebel.

At the height of the violent anti-government protests which rocked Masaya last year, Fr Román sheltered dozens of demonstrators in his church as they were being fired upon by police and armed left-wing radicals.

He also turned the clergy house into a makeshift triage unit for the injured. "The doorbell rang and there was a group of kids with blood streaming from their heads. From 7pm until the following morning, with the support of a few local medical students, we attended to anyone who arrived at our door," he recalls.

Key dates:

1927-1933: Guerrillas led by Augusto César Sandino fight US military presence
1934: Sandino assassinated on the orders of Gen Anastasio Somoza
1937: Gen Somoza elected president, heralding the start of more than four decades of dictatorship by his family
1961: Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) founded
1979: FSLN military offensive ends with the ousting of Gen Anastasio Somoza's son, also called Anastasio Somoza
2007: FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega returns to power as president after winning election
2011: Ortega re-elected to a second consecutive term after term limits are scrapped
2016: Ortega re-elected to a third consecutive term
2018: Anti-government protests rock the country

Such actions as well as his outspoken sermons, which have been openly sympathetic to the opposition cause, have brought him pressure from the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

On Friday, the governing party will be marking the 40th anniversary of the day when Sandinista rebels, who had named themselves after Fr Román's great-uncle, defeated the US-backed military ruler Anastasio Somoza.

But on the eve of the anniversary, Fr Román has little positive to say about the group carrying Sandino's name and their leader who is now Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega.

"The Sandinistas have achieved nothing. We're repeating a cycle of dictatorship. The guerrilla fighter who defeated Somoza has today become the dictator himself," he says of Mr Ortega.

Change for the better?
One of the turning points in the war against Somoza was an audacious and daring attack on the National Palace in 1978, a year before the rebels took power.

Twenty-five guerrillas, dressed as National Guard elite troops, stormed Congress while it was in full session and took the lawmakers hostage.

The man who led the near-suicidal operation, Edén Pastora, also known as Comandante Cero, does not share the priest's dismal assessment of the FSLN's legacy.

"When we won, we aimed to change the social, political and economic structure of the country, particularly for the rural, indigenous population through agrarian reform and a national literacy programme." he says. "To be a worker in the times of Somoza was to be considered practically a common criminal," he recalls.

He argues that it was the return of Daniel Ortega to power in 2007 – he had ruled the country for most of the 1980s – that made the biggest impact.

"We're the country with most growth in Latin America after Panama and the Dominican Republic," he insists before listing supposed improvements in energy, healthcare and infrastructure.

Critics of the government say many such claims by high-ranking Sandinistas are misleading. They argue that they are either based on a totalitarian control of the economy, which has only benefitted an inner circle, has weakened state institutions and bypassed the rule of law, or that they are simply untrue.

Memories of revolution
The walls of Edén Pastora's office are adorned with framed photographs of a revolutionary life: one alongside the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro, another with his comrades in a clandestine hideout and, above his desk, a famous image of him after the National Palace assault, hoisting his rifle aloft.

Today, in his 80s, Comandante Cero has a slight tremble in his hands. Yet when it comes to Nicaragua's current conflict and the more than 300 people who died during last year's wave of anti-government protests, he remains as firm and unrepentant as ever, echoing the FSLN party line.

"There was real chaos on the streets and we had to defend ourselves. We were facing terrorists here. They killed our police officers, stabbed, shot, burned them, stoned them with rocks. You can see it in the videos," he says of the response to the anti-government protests by the security forces,



Circle K stores ditch ‘Secretary Day’ condom offer

The international chain of convenience stores Circle K has offered a public apology in Mexico after it tweeted an offer which was widely decried as sexist on social media.

The ad urged shoppers to mark "Secretary Day" by buying a special "combo" consisting of a bottle of wine, a chocolate bar and a packet of condoms for their secretary.

It was quickly panned on Twitter for promoting stereotypes of women.

Circle K has withdrawn the ad.

Making a noise about machismo in Mexico
Mexican women march to highlight anti-female violence

Mexico honours different professions on days across the year. Celebrations normally do not go much beyond a card, a message sent on social media or a small gift, traditionally chocolate or flowers.

Local shops often have promotions to mark these days, which in the case of "Secretary Day", is celebrated on the third Wednesday in July.

But rather than honouring secretaries, many Mexicans felt that the offer advertised on Tuesday on Circle K convenience stores' official Twitter account did exactly the opposite.

The ad showed three offers, two of them were for a bottle of wine and a chocolate bar. But the third added a pack of condoms to the "combo" worth 199 Mexican pesos ($10; £8).

The text above it reads: "Happy day to all the secretaries. Celebrate with them the proper way with this executive combo."

The word used for secretary in the ad is "secretaria", which is female in Spanish and therefore would only be taken to apply to women. Further down, the word "executive combo" is followed by the suggestive phrase in English in brackets: "If you know what I mean".

Mexican Senator Patricia Mercado was one of those to flag up the ad on Twitter and its subsequent removal by Circle K.

Senator Mercado said that not only was the ad sexist for "reproducing gender stereotypes and misogyny by insinuating that the recognition secretaries deserve is of a sexual nature, but also because it promotes sexual harassment and bullying at work".

Read More – Source



Alejandro Toledo: Peru ex-president arrested in US

Alejandro Toledo: Peru ex-president arrested in US

Peru's former President Alejandro Toledo has been arrested in the US, the Peruvian authorities say.

The chief prosecutor's office said his arrest was in connection with an extradition request issued in March last year.

Mr Toledo is accused of taking $20m in bribes from the Brazilian construction company, Odebrecht, during his time in office between 2001 and 2006.

He denies all the charges and says they are politically motivated.

Peru country profile

Mr Toledo has been working as a a visiting professor at Stanford University, near San Francisco.

Odebrecht scandal
Odebrecht is at the centre of a multi-national corruption scandal. The company admitted, as part of a plea deal with the US justice department, to paying nearly $800m (£640m) in bribes to governments across Latin America.

That time spans the presidencies of Mr Toledo and his two successors in office, Alan Garcia and Ollanta Humala. Both denied any wrongdoing following the revelations, but Mr Garcia subsequently committed suicide.

Peruvian media reported that Odebrecht's former executive director in Peru, Jorge Barata, had accused Mr Toledo of receiving $20m in bribes in exchange for gRead More – Source



El Salvador: Woman faces retrial after baby died in toilet birth

El Salvador: Woman faces retrial after baby died in toilet birth

A woman in El Salvador whose baby was found dead in the toilet where she gave birth is facing a retrial on charges of homicide.

Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz, 21, was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2017 but was released following an appeal.

She says she did not know she was pregnant and lost consciousness during the birth.

Initially accused of abortion, she was eventually found guilty of homicide.

Abortion is illegal in El Salvador and those found guilty face between two and eight years in jail.

The mothers being criminalised in El Salvador
Where women may be jailed for miscarrying

But in many cases, including the one against Ms Hernández, the charge is changed to one of aggravated homicide, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years.

What happened?
Evelyn Hernández says she experienced severe stomach pains and bleeding while at her home in rural El Salvador on 6 April 2016.

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She went to the toilet, located in an outhouse, where she fainted. Her mother took her to a hospital, where doctors found she had given birth.

She was arrested after the body of her baby was found in the toilet's septic tank.

Ms Hernández, who was 18 at the time, says she had been raped by a gang member but that she had no idea that she was pregnant.

She said she had confused the symptoms of pregnancy with stomach ache because she had experienced intermittent bleeding, which she thought was her menstrual period.

"If I'd known I was pregnant I would have awaited [the birth] with pride and joy," she has said in the past.

She also said that while she had "felt something come loose" inside her, she did not hear a baby cry out and did not realise she was giving birth.

What were the charges?
Ms Hernández was charged with aggravated homicide in 2017.

Prosecutors said that she had hidden her pregnancy and not sought antenatal care and while they said they could not establish whether the baby was alive at birth, they argued that Ms Hernández had committed murder.

The judge ruled that Ms Hernández knew she was pregnant and found her guilty of aggravated homicide. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison in July 2017.

Why is there a retrial?
Ms Hernández lawyers appealed against the judge's decision.

The defence lawyers said that forensic test showed that the baby had died of meconium aspiration, inhaling his own early stool. This can happen while the baby is still in the uterus, during delivery or immediately after birth.

The lawyers said that the test proved that Ms Hernández had not tried to abort the baby but that it had died of natural causes. "There is no crime," defence lawyer Bertha María Deleón said.

However, her conviction was confirmed by another court in October 2017Read More – Source



Huge fire sweeps through Peru neighbourhood

Huge fire sweeps through Peru neighbourhood

A massive fire has swept through a neighbourhood in the Amazonian jungle city of Iquitos in Peru.

The flames could be seen rising from both sides of a street in the city on the upper Amazon river as firefighters and locals battled the blaze.

Local media estimate 80 families have been affected although authorities couldn't confirm whether anyone was injured.

Read More – Source



US migrant crisis: Trump seeks to curb Central America asylum claims

US migrant crisis: Trump seeks to curb Central America asylum claims

The Trump administration is seeking to curb migration from Central America by introducing new rules over who can claim asylum in the US.

The measures, unveiled on Monday, say migrants who fail to apply for asylum in the first country they pass through en route to the US will be ineligible.

Migrants who have been trafficked will be exempt from the ban.

Mexico has rejected the measures and the American Civil Liberties Union has mounted a legal challenge.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was "deeply concerned" over the new rules.

Announcing the rule change, Attorney General William Barr said it would deter "economic migrants" from exploiting the US asylum system.

"The United States is a generous country but is being completely overwhelmed by the burdens associated with apprehending and processing hundreds of thousands of aliens along the southern border," Mr Barr said in a statement.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, however, said his country would not become a dumping ground for those rejected by the US and would not return refugees to danger zones.

"Mexico does not agree with measures that limit access to asylum and refuge," he told reporters.

In a statement, the UNHCR said the measures would "endanger vulnerable people in need of international protection from violence or persecution."

"This measure is severe and is not the best way forward," it added.

It is not clear what will now happen to asylum seekers rejected by the US at the border with Mexico.

The new regulations are the Trump administration's latest attempt to toughen the US asylum process as increasing numbers of Central American migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border.

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The US announcement comes after a court in Guatemala temporarily blocked a migration deal which could have seen the Central American nation defined as a "safe third country".

Migrants from other countries en route to the US would have had to apply for asylum in Guatemala under the agreement.

Why is Mr Trump changing the asylum rules?
He says "loopholes" in the asylum process are allowing migrants from Central America and elsewhere to live in the US illegally.

Currently, when migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border, they are allowed to request asylum regardless of which country they passed through to get there.

Only migrants who have travelled through countries deemed to be "safe" face restrictions on their asylum claims in the US.

Claimants are free to reside in the US until their case is dealt with – a process that often takes years.

What are the new US asylum rules?
The new measures limit the ability of migrants to claim asylum if they enter the US across its southern border, having come via another country and not sought its protection.

It means that migrants coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador cannot seek asylum if they didn't first do so in Mexico.

There are exemptions, including for migrants denied protection in a country and victims of human trafficking.

Six surprising statistics about immigrants in the US
What's the state of illegal immigration in US?

The asylum restrictions, due to come into effect on Tuesday, have been described as an "interim rule" by the Department of Justice and the Homeland Security.

It effectively circumvents Congress, paving the way for a showdown with Democrats and civil liberties groups who oppose Mr Trump's tough stance on asylum seekers.

"The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country's legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger. This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly," said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer at American Civil Liberties Union.

Other attempts to deny asylum to migrants who enter the country illegally have been challenged in court.

Under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, there is no obligation oRead More – Source




Brazil cocaine haul: Shoppers find drug stash in their soap powder box

Shoppers in Brazil found they had unwittingly bought cocaine when they opened soap powder they had purchased at a supermarket in Sao Paulo.

At least 80kg (176lb) of the drug was found in the store in the Ermelino Matarazzo district, police said.

Tweeting a picture of the cocaine packages, police said they were "cleaning the streets of criminals".

Detectives believe the shop, where the soap powder was bought on Monday, is involved in drug trafficking.

One theory, police say, is that the drug-stuffed soap powder boxes were put on the shelves by mistake.

One customer tried to return his soap box to the store while another handed his in at his local police station, the G1 news website reported.

Brazil drug lord accused of deadly jail riot seized

In a press release, Sao Paulo military police said "individuals were unloading more of the same product" when officers arrived at the shop, adding that the "criminals tried to escape".

Four people have been arrested, including three employees of the shop, police sRead More – Source