The World Today for July 19, 2018

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Fact or Fiction?

What do Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Russian state bank VTB and the United Nation’s anti-corruption International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) all have in common?

Namely, the Bitkov family, who have sparked an international firestorm that threatens to topple an anti-corruption commission beloved in Guatemala for weeding out ill-doers in the highest levels of the government.

Irina and Igor Bitkov, who had built a successful paper business in Russia from the ground up, allegedly fled Russia in 2008 after refusing advances from the Putin-allied VTB bank to buy into their enterprise. They claim that resulted in the kidnapping and rape of their daughter, Anastasia, who was 16 at the time, the National reported.

After obtaining new identities at $50,000 a head, the family reached Guatemala, where they began new lives.

Or so they thought.

In January 2015, Guatemalan authorities arrested the Bitkovs and others in a raid on those who had allegedly used criminal networks to obtain fake passports, the Washington Post wrote.

CICIG – a legal body heavily funded by the United States and the EU that investigates high-level corruption cases in Guatemala – led the probe, which resulted in a 19-year sentence for Igor, and 14 years for both Irina and Anastasia. The Bitkov’s youngest son, Vladimir, born in Guatemala, was placed in the custody of guardians.

International actors – and Guatemalans themselves – hold the commission in high regard. Among its successes, it helped uncover a customs fraud scheme led by former President Otto Perez Molina, who resigned in 2015 and has been in jail ever since, the New York Times reported.

Current President Jimmy Morales, along with his brother and son, are also under investigation for campaign finance violations, despite the president’s best attempts to undermine the organization and oust its director, Ivan Velasquez Gomez.

But Morales’ fight to dismantle the commission may have found new life.

The Bitkovs and a host of others claim that VTB and the Kremlin have infiltrated CICIG. Among those others are Senator Marco Rubio; Wall Street Journal reporter Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who has relentlessly reported on the Bitkovs; and William Browder, a prominent investor seeking to prosecute Russian human rights abusers (think: Magnitsky Act).

They say the hefty sentences the Bitkovs received and lobbying by CICIG supporters shows that the Kremlin-owned bank is trying to get at the Bitkovs through the commission.

“All of these people who are screaming about the sacred cow of the CICIG are doing an injustice to the CICIG because the CICIG is clearly involved with the Russians in a vendetta against the Bitkov family,” Browder told the Times.

Supporters, however, say that courts followed the rule of law and that there’s no evidence to substantiate the Kremlin-CICIG connection. “Powerful sectors affected by these investigations have united in order to preserve the status quo and stop the commission’s work,” Guatemalan entrepreneur Estuardo Porras Zadik and Pedro Pablo Marroquín Pérez, a lawyer and journalist from La Hora, opined in the Washington Post.

In an interview with Open Democracy, the commission’s director, Velasquez Gomez, even went so far as to say that “fake news in the US” is responsible for the spurious connection.

As for the Bitkovs, Guatemala’s highest court overturned the charges in April. But the family remains in limbo in Guatemala City as they await a decision on their asylum application in Canada, the CBC reported.

The tale may seem too far-fetched to be true, Rachel Schwartz writes in the Washington Post. But Russia’s behavior in other instances makes it believable. “Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of the Bitkov case: Efforts to expose and punish Russian interference can have a dark underside.”



We’ll See You in Court

Iran lodged a case against the United States at the International Court of Justice in its latest bid to quash sanctions that are already starting to strangle its economy.

The suit asks the ICJ – the principal judicial organ of the United Nations – to “terminate the 8 May sanctions without delay,” the New York Times reported. It also demanded unspecified compensation for the financial damage already done by the reimposed sanctions.

The US said it would fight what it called a “baseless” lawsuit.

The case hinges on the Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights signed by Iran and the United States long before the 1979 revolution that deposed the American-backed shah. Analysts said that makes Tehran’s claims dubious, partly due to Iran’s own transgressions of the 1955 treaty.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US sanctions are already hitting Iran’s economy, even though they have yet to take effect.


Yes Means Yes

The Spanish government plans to introduce a new law on consent designed to eliminate any ambiguity and make it easier to secure rape convictions.

The law states that “yes means yes” and anything else, including silence, means no, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported. Sex without explicit consent would be considered rape.

Amid the global #Metoo movement, the debate has been particularly vociferous in Spain due to the so-called “wolf pack case” – in which five men were acquitted of raping an 18-year-old woman during the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona. The men filmed the incident, but the court rejected the rape charge based on her passive silence in the footage. Under present Spanish law, rape must involve violence and intimidation.

Though the men were convicted on a lesser charge of sexual assault and sentenced to nine years behind bars, the verdict sparked demonstrations across the country. The five men are out on bail pending an appeal of their sexual assault conviction.


Through the Front Door

US officials said hundreds of Nigerian soldiers remain unaccounted for following a deadly ambush by Islamist militants on Saturday, though the Nigerian army has denied they are missing.

Wearing Nigerian army uniforms and driving vehicles painted to look like Nigerian military trucks, the militants fooled guards into allowing them to enter the new forward operating base in northeastern Nigeria, as they were expecting reinforcements to ward off just such an assault, NBC News reported.

The news channel cited a person familiar with the incident as saying that 100 soldiers have been accounted for, but the army doesn’t know whether another 500 were killed, captured or simply fled.

US and Nigerian army officials also disagree on the identity of the militants responsible for the attack. Nigeria says they belonged to the Boko Haram group known for its kidnapping of schoolgirls, as well as numerous terrorist incidents. But the US believes the attackers were from a different Islamist group, ISIS West Africa.


Ancient Traditions

Whale hunting isn’t popular nowadays. But new archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been hunting the great mammals on a massive scale since ancient times.

Near the Strait of Gibraltar, an international team of researchers discovered ancient bones they say indicate people there were whaling as early as the Roman period, the Guardian reported.

Using DNA analysis, they found the majority of the bones belonged to several species of cetaceans, including right and grey whales.

In their study, the team argued that the whales might have moved into the warmer Mediterranean waters during their calving seasons, leading to encounters with the Roman fishermen at the time.

Various historical accounts, such as works by ancient naturalist Pliny the Elder, described encounters with large sea creatures. But scientists wonder if the civilization operated a thriving whaling industry that contributed to the creature’s disappearance from Mediterranean waters.

“The Romans ate and talked about an enormous variety of fish and seafood, and if whale was widely exploited and exported, then it is strangely absent from many discussions,” Dr. Erica Rowan, who was not part of the study, told the British newspaper.

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