The World Today for July 29, 2022

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A Grand Companion

HONDURAS

A judge in Honduras recently sentenced Roberto David Castillo, a top business executive and graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, to 22.5 years in prison for his role in the 2016 murder of Berta Caceres, an indigenous leader and environmental activist. Castillo ran the company that was building a hydroelectric dam on indigenous land in northwestern Honduras. Caceres led an effort to prevent the dam’s construction.

The hit squad that took Caceres’ life appeared to have used skills that Castillo would have picked up while studying at the US military institute. Certainly, his business success in the country reflected a savvy use of his military contacts. “His career illustrates what soldiers with connections can do in nations like Honduras, which has become notorious for its murder rate, state-sponsored violence and political impunity,” wrote the Guardian.

The late Caceres, meanwhile, has become a world-renowned hero among left-wing activists, as this Socialist Worker story illustrated.

Caceres’ family was happy about the sentencing. But they want investigators to find other members of the conspiracy. “The sentence reaffirms the importance of the need to look for the intellectual authors of the killing,” Bertha Zuniga Caceres, Berta’s daughter, told Al Jazeera. “But 22 years is nothing compared to the loss of a grand companera (companion), my mother.”

The younger Caceres has pushed for a criminal probe into the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), which had financed the dam and was allegedly complicit in a number of murders in connection with the project. The Intercept reported how the Dutch bank had wired millions of dollars to Honduras in the days leading up to the murder, suggesting a link.

Meanwhile, professional assassins are not only targeting leftwing activists in Honduras: Gunmen recently shot and killed the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo as well as three other well-connected men, the Associated Press noted. Lobo’s wife, Rosa Elena Bonilla, was allowed out of prison to attend the funeral. She was convicted of embezzling more than $1 million in public money while she was the country’s first lady. The family has long had ties to organized crime, Insight Crime reported.

President Xiomara Castro, who won office early this year, has pledged to end the culture of violence and injustice in the Central American country. Writing in Foreign Policy, Mexico City-based writer Nili Blanck was hopeful she could help the country switch gears. But Human Rights Watch recently penned a letter to Castro exhorting her to move faster.

Half measures won’t end a culture of impunity.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Song Remains the Same

IRAQ

Thousands of protesters occupied Iraq’s parliament this week in protest against corruption and the nomination of a prime minister candidate supported by the country’s Iranian-backed parties, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Supporters of the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the capital’s “Green Zone” – the fortified area housing many government buildings and the US embassy – chanting anti-Iran slogans and denouncing the nomination of Mohammed Sudani as the country’s next prime minister.

The demonstrations come amid a political impasse that has gripped Iraq following the October parliamentary elections, which saw Sadr’s movement becoming a key political power broker after winning the largest share of seats in the legislature.

Sadr and his supporters vowed to fight corruption and reduce Iran’s influence in the country. But the movement failed to form a government and recently Sadr withdrew from the political process along with his supporters in parliament, who resigned en masse.

The withdrawal paved the way for the Coordination Framework bloc, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties, to form a government.

The bloc picked Sudani to be the country’s next prime minister, whom Sadr’s allies see as a close associate of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran and a rival to the cleric.

The recent protests were a sign that Sadr and his allies have not completely withdrawn from the political sphere and will try to block the Coordination Framework’s choice of prime minister.

Wednesday’s demonstrations were the largest since the October elections when enormous protests against pervasive corruption and Iran prompted the government to seek early elections.

‘Stupid and Dangerous’

HUNGARY

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is facing a backlash following a controversial speech this week where he said that Europeans should not “become peoples of mixed race,” prompting accusations of racism and antisemitism, the Washington Post reported.

Orban’s remarks came during an annual address to members of the Hungarian minority in Romania over the weekend. The far-right leader also made a joke about Nazi gas chambers in reference to the European Union’s proposal to ration natural gas following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The comments sparked outrage among his critics, foreign officials and Holocaust groups, with the latter describing Orban’s remarks as “stupid and dangerous.”

But the biggest blow came following the resignation of Zsuzsa Hegedüs, a sociologist and longtime adviser to Orban. Hegedüs, who is Jewish, publicly criticized Orban’s speech as “a pure Nazi text worthy of Goebbels,” and the “racist” culmination of an increasingly “illiberal turn.”

The prime minister directly addressed Hegedüs, countering that his government “follows a zero-tolerance policy on both antisemitism and racism.”

Orban’s anti-immigration rhetoric and views on multicultural societies are not new: During the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, he said Muslims threaten Europe’s Christian identity. Two years later, his government erected a border fence to keep Syrians and other immigrants out of Hungary.

Meanwhile, Orban’s supporters and foreign allies remained silent on the matter, including Poland’s right-wing ruling party which has been a strong supporter of the prime minister.

Both countries have been sparring with the EU over a number of issues, including rule of law, press freedoms and judicial independence. Hungary has been a major beneficiary of bloc subsidies but EU leaders have withheld some payments to the country from a pandemic recovery fund because of Hungarian violations of EU laws and norms.

And Poland has recently fallen out with Hungary over the Ukraine war: Poland is a staunch supporter of Ukraine, supplying weapons and hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees, while Orban has maintained close ties to Russia.

European officials said that Hungary was the only EU country to vote against the bloc’s plan to wean itself off Russian natural gas supplies.

For the Love of a Dog

TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan passed a new law this week that would restrict the export of its prized native dog breed, an animal highly venerated by the leadership of the Central Asian nation, the Associated Press reported.

The new regulations will require all puppies of the Alabay breed to be marked in the government’s pedigree book and register of pedigreed dogs. Owners will also need special dog passports and government export permissions to allow their canines to leave the country.

The Alabay – known as the Central Asian shepherd dog – is celebrated in Turkmenistan, which prides itself on its horses and dogs, honoring centuries-old herding traditions.

The breed has traditionally been used for guarding livestock and is one of the largest dogs in the world – weighing as much as 175 pounds.

Former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is particularly fond of the animal, publishing a book and writing a song about the breed. In recent years, he established a holiday in honor of the Alabay and unveiled a 50-foot-tall golden statue of the dog in the nation’s capital.

His son and successor, Serdar – who was elected president this year – heads the international association of Alabays.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • The US Senate voted overwhelmingly to identify Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism for activities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine that resulted “in the deaths of countless innocent men, women and children,” according to the New York Times. The language of the measure echoes what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asserted throughout the war: that Russian forces have committed acts of brutality against civilians, including rape, murder and torture, that amount to terrorism.
  • Ukrainians detained by Russian forces are being sent “en masse” to a network of prisons and filtration camps, according to Polish officials. There, they added, individuals are “verified” and vetted to see whether they have military experience, if they are Ukrainian government officials, and what their opinions toward Russia are, Sky News wrote.
  • Russia said Thursday that no deal had been made on any prisoner swap with the US, a day after rumors surfaced that Washington had suggested handing back renowned weapons dealer Viktor Bout in return for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, the New York Post noted.

DISCOVERIES

Goliath Versus Goliath

Scientists have discovered that the terrifying great white sharks are not so invincible after all: They are hunted and eaten by killer whales, the Washington Post reported.

In 2017, a research team initially found the carcasses of five sharks on South Africa’s coast. Four of the great whites were missing a liver, while the fifth one didn’t have a heart.

The team later determined that the five were victims of a pair of male orcas – named Port and Starboard – which fed on the sharks’ nutrient-rich liver.

In their study, they wrote that Port and Starboard – and possibly other orcas – were impacting the shark population off the South African coast.

Researchers studied the waters near Gansbaai, a popular shark viewing destination about 75 miles east of Cape Town. The area was known to be teeming with the apex predator in the months leading up to the 2017 attacks. But as the orcas began to appear, shark sightings became rarer, researchers reported.

They concluded that the arrival of the orcas – also an apex predator that is 50 percent larger than a great white – displaced the shark population.

The authors suggested that the killer whales moved to Gansbaai because of a decline in the fish they prey on elsewhere. Similar shark displacements have been recorded off the coast of San Francisco, California.

Still, they warned that this encroachment by orcas destabilizes the ecosystem.

“Ecology is a balance,” said lead author Alison Towner. “Remove sharks at the top and everything is disrupted, smaller predators dominate and the system can potentially collapse or certainly some species within it.”

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