January 08, 2021

Listen to Today's Edition
Voiced by Amazon Polly

NEED TO KNOW

IRAQ

A Prerequisite for Trust

Few people outside the White House defended President Donald Trump’s pardon of four Blackwater mercenaries who massacred 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Especially tragically, one of those victims was a 9-year-old boy profiled in Democracy Now!

“Shock and dismay” followed the announcement of the pardons, according to National Public Radio. The men claimed they were attacked. But witnesses described how the four private military contractors “ambushed the civilians unprovoked” with heavy guns and grenade launchers in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

One of the men received a life sentence in federal prison for his first-degree murder conviction, the Associated Press explained. The three others were convicted on multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter. They were originally sentenced to 30 years in prison, but their punishments were later shortened.

Iraqis were understandably outraged at the pardons. “They are terrorists,” Jasim Mohammed Al-Nasrawi, a police officer injured in the attack, told CNN.

Some conservative Americans, including Fox News commentators, believed Trump showed courage in pardoning the mercenaries, Mother Jones wrote in a story that paints a horrifying picture of the massacre in Nisour Square. But even the libertarian Cato Institute deemed the pardon’s “grotesque.”

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin argued that pardons actually hurt American interests in the long run, harming the US’s reputation as an upholder of justice. Nobody will believe Americans can be held accountable – arguably a prerequisite for trust.

In an opinion piece in the Hill, Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, called into question the entire military-industrial complex that gave rise to Blackwater and the so-called forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – which dragged on despite repeated failures and trillions in expenditures that generated little or no return.

Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, a friend of Trump and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, changed the name of his firm to Academi in 2011, the Huffington Post reported. Prince and his small private army now owe Trump a favor, added Esquire.

Folks in the Texas hometown of one of the contractors, Dustin Heard, put on a parade of police, firefighters and other emergency vehicles on Christmas Eve to celebrate his freedom, the Wichita Falls Time Record News reported. The Knoxville News Sentinel, which covers the region of Tennessee where Heard now lives, wrote about how the four men believed a car bomb was set to be deployed against them.

Perhaps Heard and the others were put in an impossible situation. Their release still doesn’t necessarily reduce the likelihood of another such incident occurring again, unfortunately.

WANT TO KNOW

HONG KONG

Getting Bolder

Hong Kong authorities arrested pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Thursday, a day after police detained more than 50 other activists over accusations of committing subversion under the territory’s new national security law, Sky News reported.

Wong, who is already serving a 13-month prison sentence for organizing and participating in the 2019 Hong Kong protests, was accused of violating the territory’s controversial legislation imposed by China last June.

On Wednesday, authorities arrested 53 activists, including members of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, for participating in an unofficial primary election last July for the since-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election.

Among those arrested was American human rights lawyer John Clancey, who was later granted bail on Thursday.

The detentions mark a major increase in the use of the national security law, which makes acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers illegal and punishable with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Western nations condemned the arrests as a “campaign of political oppression” and said they violated the joint declaration signed by China and Britain when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Not a Big Dent

China agreed to cancel the Democratic Republic of Congo’s interest-free loans that matured in 2020 as the Central African country agreed to become part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the South China Morning Post reported Thursday.

On Wednesday’s visit to the DRC capital, Kinshasa, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would write off an estimated $28 million to help the country overcome the coronavirus pandemic. He added that Beijing will also offer $17 million in other financial support.

The same day, the DRC agreed to become the 45th country in Africa to sign the BRI, the ambitious Chinese trade and infrastructure development plan that funded construction of highways, railways and power plants across the continent.

The move comes as DRC President Felix Tshisekedi is facing a political crisis after he ended his coalition government with his predecessor Joseph Kabila last month.

He thanked China for its support, but analyst Mark Bohlund said that the debt relief “will not make a material difference for DRC.”

Though some leaders have decried the BRI as a debt trap, Bohlund explained that the DRC had borrowed less than other countries in the region over the past decade and argued that the main economic challenge for Tshisekedi was to mobilize more international investment – either from China or the World Bank.

IRAN

A Major Step Forward

Iran’s government approved a long-awaited bill earlier this week that would criminalize violence and sexual misconduct against women, as well as specify punishments for perpetrators, the New York Times reported.

The bill – which has been in the making for almost a decade – follows a groundbreaking #MeToo movement and shocking reports of so-called honor killings that have gripped the Iranian public over the past six months.

A summary of the legislation described it as establishing “any act that causes physical or emotional or reputational harm” to a woman or results in curbing her freedom or social rights as a crime.

It also requires the country’s judiciary to create and sponsor centers to support victims of violence and women vulnerable to violence, as well as a special female police unit to protect women.

While the bill falls short of international standards and is yet to be passed by the country’s conservative parliament, activists say it is an important step forward for women and likely to be approved.

DISCOVERIES

Eight-Legged Carriers

The false widow spider has a bad reputation in the United Kingdom thanks to its infamously venomous bites.

Scientists have classified the bite as similar to that of a wasp or bee sting, which mostly cause s a few hours of pain in the injection site.

However, some victims of the spider have ended up with necrotic skin, and others have even died from false widow bites, prompting doctors to wonder what exactly is causing these reactions, Science Alert reported.

A new scientific paper on the invasive spider – which reached British shores around the 19th century – found that its venom was not the problem: It was the bacteria on its fangs.

A research team studied specimens of false widows – as well as two other spider species – and found that their bodies and fangs were rife with microbes: Among the 22 bacterial species found on false widows, 12 were potentially pathogenic to humans.

For a long time, scientists believed that the venom would sterilize the fangs, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A majority of these bacteria can be easily treated with antibiotics, but the team worried that the arachnids could sometimes be carrying drug-resistant superbugs.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean people should begin spider-proofing their homes. Rather, it alerts medical professionals to bear in mind that the venom is not always the culprit.

Holiday Promo

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: 21,579,581 (+1.29%)
  2. India: 10,413,417 (+0.17%)
  3. Brazil: 7,961,673 (+1.12%)
  4. Russia: 3,297,833 (+0.71%)
  5. UK: 2,898,052 (+1.86%)
  6. France: 2,763,370 (+0.01%)
  7. Turkey: 2,296,102 (+0.53%)
  8. Italy: 2,220,361 (+0.84%)
  9. Spain: 2,024,904 (+2.14%)
  10. Germany: 1,886,561 (+2.33%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours