September 18, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

PHILIPPINES

Let Chaos Reign

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently pardoned a US Marine who was convicted of killing a transgender woman.

Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton admitted to killing the woman, Jennifer Laude, in a hotel room in 2014 after he discovered that she was transgender. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Gay rights groups condemned it as a mockery of justice, Al Jazeera wrote. Duterte’s spokesman said the pardon might have been a tactic to make sure the Philippines received coronavirus vaccines now being developed in the US, according to Reuters.

Duterte called the pardon “fair.” History will determine whether he was right or wrong. But it doesn’t take much digging to see that reasonable people could respectfully disagree with Duterte’s version of “fair,” on this issue or many others.

For example, take the president’s new anti-terrorism law: Writing in a Washington Post op-ed, McGill University Graduate Student Alex Regino called it the “nail in the coffin” of Filipino democracy. The law gives police too much leeway in determining who is a terrorist while granting officers overreaching powers to apprehend and detain suspects.

The law is designed to combat Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups that have stepped up their activities in the country as the coronavirus pandemic ate up the government’s resources, the Military Times explained. But, as the Diplomat wrote, a military crackdown won’t stop the violence. Duterte needs to also deploy soft power to dissuade new recruits from filling the shoes of militants who fall in battle.

A similar dynamic could be occurring with Duterte’s war on drugs. More than 5,700 drug suspects, mostly poor people, have died under Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown. During the country’s coronavirus lockdown from April to July, police killed 50 percent more people than in the previous four-month period in relation to drug offenses, according to Human Rights Watch.

Yet the president recently told customs officers that they should “shoot and kill” all drug smugglers because narcotics were still flowing into the country, the Guardian reported. The failure of the death toll to discourage the drug trade hasn’t appeared to change the policy stance.

Few Filipinos can speak out against the trend. Human rights activists face unimaginable dangers, the Catholic News Agency wrote. Duterte’s political allies have also worked to close televisions stations and other media that might be critical of his administration, the New York Times added.

Law and order policies work, say observers, until they don’t.

WANT TO KNOW

BELARUS

Carrots and Sticks

The European Parliament voted Thursday to rescind recognition of Alexander Lukashenko as Belarus’ president following controversial elections last month, a move that precludes EU sanctions against him, Reuters reported.

European Union lawmakers voted 574 to 37, with 82 abstentions, to reject the results of the Aug. 9 presidential elections in a show of support for Belarus pro-democracy protesters. The vote is not legally binding but it carries political weight and can influence how the EU invests in Belarus or grants financial support.

Meanwhile, the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have appointed independent investigators to look into alleged human rights violations in Belarus.

Mass protests have gripped Belarus since Lukashenko – who has been in power for 26 years – declared himself the winner in the elections. The opposition calls the vote rigged.

Lukashenko has refused to step down and has cracked down on demonstrators, arresting thousands over the past few weeks. At the same time, many opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee the country.

LIBYA

Preparing to Prepare

Libya’s internationally-recognized leader, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, will step down by the end of October, a move that comes as the country’s rival factions are negotiating a political solution to the years-long conflict, Al Jazeera reported Thursday.

Sarraj said Wednesday he will cede power to a new administration. He added that the United Nations-brokered talks between the country’s rival factions have resulted in a “new preparatory phase” that would unify Libyan institutions and prepare for elections.

Sarraj is the leader of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, while much of eastern and southern Libya belong to forces loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar’s forces launched an offensive last year to capture Tripoli but the campaign failed after GNA forces with Turkish support were able to repel the commander’s troops near the central city of Sirte.

Following international pressure, the rival factions met earlier this month to reach a preliminary deal that aims to guide Libya toward elections within 18 months and demilitarize Sirte.

Analysts worry that Sarraj’s exit could lead to infighting among GNA senior officials.

Sarraj has led the GNA since its inception in 2015 as part of the UN agreement to unite and stabilize Libya following the unrest that followed the ouster of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

UKRAINE

The Faithful

Hundreds of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims remained in limbo at the Ukrainian-Belarussian border Thursday as authorities continued to bar their entry to Ukraine citing the coronavirus pandemic, Agence France-Presse reported.

The pilgrims were heading to the central Ukrainian city of Uman for Jewish New Year, which falls on Sept. 18-20 this year, to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. The city attracts tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews annually.

The believers departed this year to Uman despite both Ukrainian and Israeli authorities urging them not to travel due to the pandemic. Israel has even called on the pilgrims to return home but many have refused.

The situation has also caused diplomatic tensions between Belarus and Ukraine: Ukrainian officials blame their neighbors for spreading “rumors” that the Ukrainian border may still be open to foreigners.

Meanwhile, up 3,000 pilgrims have arrived in Uman for celebrations with authorities tightening security near Rabbi Nachman’s tomb.

Ukraine has more than 170,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 3,400 deaths as of Thursday.

DISCOVERIES

The Extremophiles

Bacteria can survive the most extreme environments, including scalding deserts, freezing polar ice and buried miles underground.

They can even overcome the vacuum of space, a new study has found.

Researchers at Tokyo University placed dry pellets of Deinococcus radiodurans bacteria in panels outside of the International Space Station (ISS). Each of these pellets had large colonies of bacteria of different thicknesses – and there was no shield against subzero temperatures and high radiation in the emptiness of space.

After more than a year, the tough microorganisms pulled through: Results showed that pellets thicker than 0.5 millimeters survived, New Atlas reported.

The team explained that colonies endured because a protective shell was formed around them from the individual bacteria that died of exposure. Their estimations determined that if the pellets were thicker than 0.5 mm, the microbes could live on the ISS for decades.

But aside from showing that bacteria are extremophiles, the findings support the hypothesis of panspermia – meaning that life travels between planets.

Scientists suggest that bacteria used asteroids and comets to travel and survived the extreme conditions during their journey.

However, there are still a few major plot holes that the authors need to figure out, such as if the microorganisms can survive being ejected from a planet or crash-landing on a new one.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 6,675,560 (+0.67%)
  2. India: 5,214,677 (+1.88%)
  3. Brazil: 4,455,386 (+0.82%)
  4. Russia: 1,081,152 (+0.53%)
  5. Peru: 744,400 (+0.86%)
  6. Colombia: 743,945 (+1.03%)
  7. Mexico: 684,113 (+0.47%)
  8. South Africa: 655,572 (+0.33%)
  9. Spain: 625,651 (+1.84%)
  10. Argentina: 601,713 (+2.16%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours