Egyptians, rather than the west, must tackle Sisi | Letter

The call for the west to address the autocracy of President Sisi’s government is problematic, says Youssef Farrag

I cannot agree more with Amr Darrag’s opinion on the failure of the Egyptian government – shown in extravagant projects that were meant to lift President Sisi’s status rather than serve the population and in the establishment of an autocratic regime that has seen an abundance of human rights violations (If Sisi’s brutality in Egypt continues, the results could be dire for Europe, 11 February). And it is likely, in light of the proposals for a constitutional amendment, that Sisi will be in office until 2034.

However, the call for the west to address the autocracy of Sisi’s government is problematic. Democracy is established and sustained by collective action, and can only thrive when people are able to be force themselves into the conversation and the decision-making process. Thus, democracy can be imagined differently in different countries and can often be used to reject rather than affirm western values.

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Africa | The Guardian

Sexual Violence Rampant in South Sudan’s Northern Unity Region

A new United Nations report documents widespread and pervasive rape and sexual violence against women and girls, some as young as eight, in South Sudan’s northern Unity Region. 

The U.N. says at least 175 women and girls were victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence between September and December.  It adds the actual number of victims was likely to be considerably higher.

The U.N. says attacks against civilians in South Sudan have decreased since the peace accord was signed Sept. 12.  But it says conflict-related sexual violence continues in northern Unity.

Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville says the kind of sexual violence being committed is particularly brutal and cruel.  He says almost 90 percent of women and girls have been gang raped, often over several hours.  He says no one is spared.  Even pregnant women and nursing mothers are victims of sexual violence.

“The extreme brutality of the attackers appears to be a consistent feature with women and girls describing how they were brutally beaten by perpetrators with rifle butts, sticks, small firearms and cable wires if they attempted to resist their assailants or were simply gratuitously beaten after the rapes had taken place,” Colville said.

Colville said no one is held accountable for the crimes.  He said sexual violence is committed in a climate of pervasive impunity, contributing to the sense that violence against women and girls is a normal way of life.

The U.N. said most of the attacks reportedly have been carried out by youth militia groups and other elements allied with government forces.  It said a few attacks also have been perpetrated by members of the pro-Riek Machar Opposition. 

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is calling on South Sudanese authorities to protect women and girls, to promptly investigate all allegations of sexual violence, and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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Voice of America

US to Slash Payouts From 9/11 Victims Fund

The special master overseeing a U.S. government fund to compensate victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said Friday that future awards would be significantly reduced, typically by at least 50 percent, because the fund was running short of money. 

 

Rupa Bhattacharyya, the special master, said the reduction in payouts from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was necessary because the $2.375 billion remaining in the $7.375 billion fund was not enough to compensate the thousands of additional eligible victims and family members. 

 

“I am painfully aware of the unfairness of this plan,” Bhattacharyya said on a conference call with reporters. “It is the best that we could do.” 

 

Roughly $5 billion has been awarded on more than 21,000 claims, about three-quarters of which came from New York. 

 

Bhattacharyya said the fund would have needed to be $12 billion, instead of $7.375 billion, to compensate everyone fully. 

 

Nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, when airplanes hijacked by al-Qaida members crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington, and a Pennsylvania field.  

The fund opened in late 2011 for first responders, including police officers and firefighters; cleanup and construction crews; and people who lived, worked or went to school near the attacks. A similar fund ended operations seven years earlier. 

 

Nearly 40,000 compensation claims have been filed in the last seven years, but half were filed in 2017 and 2018. 

 

Thousands more are expected. 

 

Bhattacharyya attributed the faster pace of claims to the growing number of cancers, other serious illnesses and deaths linked to the attacks, and the fund’s warning in October that future payouts might be reduced. 

 

The new procedure calls for base payouts, before offsets for sums awarded from other sources for the same injuries, to be reduced by 50 percent for claims submitted before Feb. 2, 2019, and 70 percent for claims submitted later. 

 

Bhattacharyya said she “could not abide” by alternatives that would have awarded nothing to eligible victims. 

 

People have until Dec. 18, 2020, to file claims.  

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Voice of America

Year in Space Put US Astronaut’s Disease Defenses on Alert 

Nearly a year in space put astronaut Scott Kelly’s immune system on high alert and changed the activity of some of his genes compared with those of his Earth-bound identical twin, researchers said Friday. 

 

Scientists don’t know if the changes were good or bad, but results from a unique NASA twins study are raising new questions for doctors as the space agency aims to send people to Mars.  

 

Tests of the genetic doubles gave scientists an opportunity, not available before, to track details of human biology, such as how an astronaut’s genes turn on and off in space differently than at home. One puzzling change announced Friday at a science conference: Kelly’s immune system was hyperactivated. 

 

“It’s as if the body is reacting to this alien environment,” somewhat like the way a body would react with “a mysterious organism” inside, said geneticist Christopher Mason of New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College, who helped lead the study. He said doctors were now looking for that in other astronauts. 

 

Longtime research

Since the beginning of space exploration, NASA has studied the toll on astronauts’ bodies, such as bone loss that requires exercise to counter. Typically they’re in space about six months at a time. Kelly, who lived on the International Space Station, spent 340 days in space and set a U.S. record. 

 

“I’ve never felt completely normal in space,” the now-retired Kelly said in an email to The Associated Press, citing the usual congestion from shifting fluid, headaches and difficulty concentrating from extra carbon dioxide, and digestive complaints from microgravity. 

 

But this study was a unique dive into the molecular level, with former astronaut Mark Kelly, Scott’s twin, on the ground for comparison. Full results haven’t yet been published, but researchers presented some findings Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

​’Gene expression’

A number of genes connected to the immune system became hyperactive, Mason said. It’s not a change in DNA but in what’s called “gene expression,” how genes turn off and on and increase or decrease their production of proteins. Mason also spotted a spike in the bloodstream of another marker that primes the immune system. Yet at the same time, Kelly’s blood showed fewer of another cell type that’s an early defense against viruses. 

 

It’s not a surprise that gene activity would change in space — it changes in response to all kinds of stress. 

 

“You can see the body adapting to the change in its environment,” Mason said. 

 

The good news: Almost everything returned to normal shortly after Kelly got back on Earth in March 2016. Those immune-related genes, however, “seemed to have this memory or this need to almost be on high alert” even six months later, Mason said. 

 

“On the whole it’s encouraging,” said Craig Kundrot, who heads space life and science research for NASA. “There are no major new warning signs. We are seeing changes that we didn’t necessarily anticipate,” but they don’t know if those changes are consequential. 

Russian experience

 

From four Russians living in space for more than a year, NASA already knew prolonged time off Earth is possible, Kundrot said, adding, “We also aim for more than just possible. We want our astronauts to do more than just survive.” 

 

Ultimately, the twins study gives NASA a catalog of things to monitor on future missions to see if other astronauts react the same way. Astronauts on future missions will be able to do some of this testing in space instead of freezing samples for scientists back home, Mason said.  

Immune issues sound familiar to Dr. Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut who spent more than four months on the Russian space station Mir. He said he was never sick in orbit, but once he came back to Earth, “I was probably more sick than I was in my life.” 

 

Astronauts launch into orbit with their own germs and get exposed to their crewmates’ germs, and then after a week with nothing else new in the “very sterile environment” of a space station, “your immune system is really not challenged,” Linenger said. 

 

A human mission to Mars, which NASA hopes to launch in the 2030s, will take 30 months, including time on the surface, Kundrot said. 

Radiation exposure

 

Radiation is a top concern. The mission would expose astronauts to galactic cosmic radiation levels higher than NASA’s own safety standard. It’s “just a little bit over,” he said.  

 

On Earth and even on the space station, Earth’s magnetic field shields astronauts from lots of radiation. There would be no such shielding on the way to Mars and back, but tunnels or dirt-covered habitats could help a bit on Mars, Kundrot said. 

 

Kelly, who turns 55 next week, said he’d go to Mars. He said a trip that long “wouldn’t be worse than what I experienced. Possibly better. I think the big physical challenge, radiation aside, will be a mission where you are in space for years.”  

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Voice of America

Haitians Continue to Protest, Despite Plea From President 

Hundreds of Haitians protested in the streets of the capital, Port- au-Prince, for the ninth consecutive day Friday, despite the president’s assurances that he understands their pain and is working toward a solution.

“We are asking the international community to help us get rid of [President] Jovenel [Moise] because Jovenel is working for them,” a protester told VOA Creole. “Fellow citizens, please if you see Jovenel on the street, handcuff him and throw him in jail,” the young man added. 

Moise broke his weeklong silence with a national address Thursday night, which was broadcast nationwide and on Facebook. He sought to calm and reassure a tense and angry nation. 

“I hear you,” Moise said, acknowledging criticism about his government’s ineffectiveness and lack of transparency. “I will never betray you. You are the reason I ran for president. I’m working for you.”

He also reminded the country’s most underprivileged citizens that like them, he, too, came from humble beginnings.

Moise announced that he has taken a series of measures to make life better for Haitians and has asked Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant, whom he described as an electoral rival, to communicate those measures and apply them immediately. He later tweeted that Ceant would announce the new economic measures Friday.

It is still unclear whether or when the prime minister will announce the measures, but in an interview with a local radio station Friday morning, Ceant said the president had pressured him to resign. Ceant said he refused.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, protesters are burning tires and building makeshift barricades, which are blocking many roads. 

“We don’t need for the prime minister to resign,” a protester in his 20s told VOA Creole. “We need lower prices. This morning I went to buy a bag of rice — I’m a poor person — they were asking 350 dollars [Haitian Gourdes, the local currency, are equivalent to about U.S. $3.50]. So, president, I’m asking you to resign. You can go now.”

“Jovenel is adding fuel to the fire,” a protester in his 40s told VOA Creole. “It would have been better if he had never said anything.” The man decried the current living conditions where young people have died and residents are dealing with a water shortage. 

“I’m out here [protesting] for the ninth time. I lost a lot of brothers and sisters during these protests,” another man said proudly. “The president humiliated [in his speech last night] by calling us drug dealers, while he sends kudos to the Americans. Mr. President, we are not drug dealers!”

The international community has acknowledged the people’s right to protest but deplored the violence and damage to property. 

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Friday reacting to the protests and the president’s speech.

“The United States Government shares the desire of the Haitian people for a better future for Haiti,” it said. “We encourage all of Haiti’s lawfully elected representatives, and all Haitians who seek a peaceful political solution consistent with Haiti’s constitution to engage in an inclusive dialogue — without resorting to violent action.”

The statement also encouraged “sound economic policy measures” and “transparent resource management” as ways to improve living conditions.

Meanwhile, Haiti Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond is in Washington. He tweeted a photo of himself at the White House where he met with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton.

In Washington, the State Department has raised its travel alert for Haiti to level 4, the most serious. “Do not travel, due to crime and unrest,” the advisory reads.

Renan Toussaint and Matiado Vilme contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince, Nike Ching contributed from the State Department, Ronald Cesar contributed in Washington.

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Voice of America

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