The World Today for July 07, 2022

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Crimes of Thought

RUSSIA

Along with other activism to promote democracy and respect for the law in his native Russia, Sergei Davidis spoke in the defense of Alexei Navalny in court earlier this year. He told the i (inews.co.uk), a British news outlet, that he knew the main political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin would be found guilty of embezzling from his political organization and be sentenced to years in jail.

Fearing that his actions would spark a harsh reprisal, he left two days after appearing in court, fleeing to Lithuania with his wife and child. Davidis didn’t want to end up in prison like Navalny and other dissidents who speak out against Putin.

He had cause to worry.

Recently, another famous Russian dissident was jailed, reported Agence France-Presse. Dubbed a “foreign agent” and detained for allegedly spreading false information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Kara-Murza described the awful experience of imprisonment due to thought crimes in a recent op-ed. Noting that Navalny and hundreds of other dissidents are sitting in Russian prisons, he asked for help.

“Please remember them. Please speak out on their behalf. Please advocate their release – which will come, I have no doubt,” he wrote, the text of which he gave to his lawyer during a prison visit to pass on to the Washington Post. “Because the worst nightmare for a political prisoner is to be forgotten.”

The contrast between their suffering and their symbolism is perhaps the most potent way of evoking the plight of the brave Kara-Murza, Navalny and others. The National Interest portrayed Kara-Murza as a brave figure who evoked the anti-Soviet traditions of the Russian dissidence movement of the Cold War.

The conditions of Russian prisons and the treatment of dissidents should bring idealists back to reality, however.

Ukrainian prisoners of war have accused Russian officials of permitting torture, including beatings, electrocutions and other horrors, wrote Global News. Russian officials denied medical treatment to Hlib Stryzhko, a Ukrainian soldier who suffered from a broken pelvis and jaw while defending the important Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The soldier was later part of a prisoner swap between Russian and Ukrainian forces, the BBC reported.

American veteran Trevor Reed, who was kept as a prisoner in a Russian prison for three years before he was released in April, recently lamented the fate of American basketball star Brittney Griner, added CNN. Reed recalled rotten food, no medicine and a “nightmare” that began upon waking up. Russian authorities have accused Griner of smuggling cannabis oil into the country. Her detention has become a symbol of US and Russian tensions over the Ukraine war. But for her, there is a spotlight – unlike the hundreds of Russians who will languish in prison after show trials.

But then, when thought itself is illegal, there is no justice.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Casting the Reins

EUROPEAN UNION

The European Parliament approved two new laws this week that it says would rein in tech giants and transform the bloc’s digital landscape through fairer competition and additional consumer safety, Euronews reported.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), both considered the first laws of their scope worldwide to address hate speech, competition and data privacy issues resulting from the transformation of the European Union’s digital economy in recent years.

For example, the DSA will set new rules and obligations for companies, such as Google and Facebook, to tackle societal risks from the internet. These include curbing hate speech, fighting illegal online content and products, and providing more transparency about their content moderation and use of algorithms.

Also under the DSA, targeted advertising based on sensitive data, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious views will be prohibited.

Meanwhile, the DMA aims to enforce fair competition across the EU’s single market, primarily focusing on the digital “gatekeepers” – large platforms that hold a dominant market position and are almost impossible to avoid for consumers.

The legislation establishes a list of obligations for gatekeepers, such as making their services inter-operable with smaller competitors. Gatekeepers will not be allowed to rank their own services more favorably or prevent users from uninstalling pre-loaded apps, such as Apple Music on iPhones.

Failure to comply with the DMA’s provisions could result in steep fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s total worldwide turnover in the preceding financial year and 20 percent in case of repeated infringements.

While some lawmakers hailed the landmark laws, others have questioned if EU regulators will be able to enforce them, Reuters noted.

The European Commission has set up task forces and set aside $12.3 million to hire professionals to aid in probes and compliance enforcement over a four-year period.

Even so, critics warned that the enforcement plans are inadequate to counter Big Tech’s deep pockets and array of lawyers.

Bending and Breaking

NORTH MACEDONIA

Violent protests erupted this week in North Macedonia over the government’s decision to approve a series of concessions on ethnic rights as part of the European Union accession talks, Al Jazeera reported Wednesday.

Officials said that at least 11 protesters were arrested, 47 police officers were injured and a number of government buildings were damaged during Tuesday’s clashes.

The unrest erupted after the nationalist opposition party VMRO-DPMNE called for protests against concessions to neighboring Bulgaria amid the EU accession process.

EU member Bulgaria had blocked the start of negotiations for more than two years, insisting that North Macedonia must formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, acknowledge the Bulgarian minority in the country and quash “hate speech” against Bulgaria, according to Radio Free Europe.

The two Balkan neighbors reached a compromise following a French-backed proposal that would require North Macedonia to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority.

North Macedonia’s government supported the proposal but the VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing groups rejected the plan as the “legalization of the assimilation of the Macedonian people.”

For 17 years, North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership. The nation was given the go-ahead to begin accession discussions in 2020 but no date was set.

In 2018, the country changed its name from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia” to win Greece’s backing for EU membership. Greece had objected to its prior name.

The Right to Intimacy

ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA

A Caribbean court ruled this week that Antigua and Barbuda’s anti-sodomy law is unconstitutional, the latest verdict to challenge the legislation that used to be common in former British colonies, the Associated Press reported.

The Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court said in its ruling that “the selection of an intimate partner is a private and a personal choice.” It added that the country’s 1995 Sexual Offenses Act “offends the right to liberty, protection of the law, freedom of expression, protection of personal privacy and protection from discrimination on the basis of sex.”

The historic ruling comes after a gay man and a local women’s rights group challenged the constitutionality of the law: Despite being rarely enforced, the law punishes two consenting adults found guilty of having anal sex with 15 years in prison. If found guilty of serious indecency, they would face five years in prison.

The man, who worked for the country’s Ministry of Health, said that he had been persecuted and assaulted, adding that some of his patients have refused treatment because of his sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, the local anti-rape group said that fear of breaches of confidentiality has deterred LGBTQ+ people from obtaining AIDS testing or treatment and that health care personnel display open hostility toward them.

Regional human rights advocates welcomed the verdict but warned that same-sex consensual intimacy is still criminalized in seven Caribbean countries.

Currently, courts in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago have found such laws unconstitutional, while other cases in the region are pending.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • Russian forces increased their attacks in Donetsk as the Kremlin seeks to seize additional territory in the Donbas area, USA Today reported. Shelling has killed at least eight people in Ukraine in the past 24 hours, authorities reported Wednesday. According to pro-Russian rebels, attacks by Ukrainian forces killed four civilians.
  • Russia slammed French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to broadcast private phone conversations in a documentary about his unsuccessful efforts to persuade his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to refrain from invading Ukraine, Bloomberg wrote. A France 2 television team captured the entire conversation between Macron and Putin on Feb. 20, four days before the war began. During the conversation, Putin offers to meet with US President Joe Biden in Switzerland “in principle.” As Macron becomes irritated, Putin becomes dismissive, saying he is at the gym and just wants to play ice hockey.
  • Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened nuclear war on Wednesday if the International Criminal Court (ICC) moved to punish Moscow for alleged crimes in Ukraine, according to Agence France-Presse. He accused the US of attempting to bring Moscow before international courts while never facing consequences for its own conflicts, which he said killed 20 million people globally.

DISCOVERIES

A Mite’s Choice

Human faces are rife with microscopic mites that live, feed and reproduce on facial skin until their host dies.

But a new study on their genes found that the 0.3-millimeter-long critter is potentially on the verge of extinction because of its lifestyle choices, Discover Magazine reported.

Demodex mites primarily live on hair and feed on the oils produced in our pores. While generally harmless, they can cause an itchy, irritating condition called demodicosis in people with skin conditions or the immunocompromised.

The tiny bugs become part of an individual’s life during breastfeeding when mites leap from the mother’s nipple to the baby’s face – known as their primary way of spreading.

But the peculiar creature leads a very sheltered lifestyle in the pores, which protects it from the outside world and natural selection. Demodex also reproduces through inbreeding, which causes many mutations in their DNA.

Now, a research team found that their way of life could lead to their demise: After analyzing the genomes of more than 250 mites, they discovered that Demodex’s genomes were degraded and reshuffled as a result of decreased selection pressure.

The insect lost genes that coded for stress response, immune response and reproduction. The mutations also distorted its anatomy, resulting in a simplified body with the fewest number of cells of any known arthropod.

While some of these mutations are harmless, others could be fatal, the team warned.

They added that if the mites carrying these deadly mutations moved to a new host, their chance of survival remains dim – and they could eventually become extinct.

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