Venezuela Arrests 5 From State Police Linked to Jail Disaster

Venezuela arrested five state police officials for their alleged role in a riot and fire that killed 68 people in an overcrowded police station cell, the country’s public prosecutor said Saturday.

Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted that the five officials had been detained.

Saab, a former Socialist Party governor close to leftist President Nicolas Maduro, did not provide further details about the cause of the disaster, the worst to affect Venezuela’s notoriously violent jails in over two decades.

Relatives of dead inmates and one surviving prisoner told Reuters there was a shootout with police Wednesday morning in the jail in the Carabobo state capital, Valencia.

One inmate’s widow said officials had doused the area with gasoline, which fueled a fire through the small cells strung with hammocks and divided with sheets.

There was no immediate comment from Carabobo state police.

Venezuela’s opposition blamed the tragedy on Maduro’s inability to reform Venezuela’s lawless jails, where inmates strut around with weapons and orchestrate crimes from cells.

“The situation in detention centers and police jail cells in Venezuela is unacceptable!” said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro.

Long official silence

Opposition politicians have also criticized the government for its long silence about the incident. Maduro’s administration issued a statement late Friday night expressing its condolences to relatives, and the president has yet to publicly speak about the deaths.

A former bus driver and union leader who has grown widely unpopular, Maduro is running for re-election in a May election largely boycotted by the opposition.

With heavy use of state resources and a compliant electoral council, he is expected to win a six-year term despite salary-destroying hyperinflation, a fifth straight year of recession, and rampant crime.

State television focused on showing images of Venezuelans on the beach during the Easter holiday, while Maduro’s ministers also largely remained mum on the Valencia disaster.

But Delcy Rodriguez, the president of the pro-government legislative superbody known as the constituent assembly, struck back at criticism of the government’s handling of the jail fire.

“We repudiate the use of Venezuelans’ pain as a political tool,” tweeted Rodriguez.

Tesla Says Vehicle in Deadly Crash Was on Autopilot 

A vehicle in a fatal crash last week in California was operating on Autopilot, making it the latest accident to involve a self-driving vehicle, Tesla has confirmed.

The electric car maker said the driver, who was killed in the accident, did not have his hands on the steering wheel for six seconds before the crash, despite several warnings from the vehicle. Tesla Inc. tells drivers that its Autopilot system, which can maintain speed, change lanes and self-park, requires drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel in order to take control of the vehicle to avoid accidents. 

Tesla said its vehicle logs show the driver took no action to stop the Model X SUV from crashing into a concrete lane divider. Photographs of the SUV show that the front of the vehicle was demolished, its hood was ripped off  and its front wheels were scattered on the freeway.

The vehicle also caught fire, though Tesla said no one was in the vehicle when that happened. The company said the crash was made worse by a missing or damaged safety shield on the end of the freeway barrier that is supposed to reduce the impact into the concrete lane divider.

The crash happened in Mountain View, in California’s Silicon Valley. The driver was Walter Huang, 38, a software engineer for Apple.

“None of this changes how devastating an event like this is or how much we feel for our customer’s family and friends,” Tesla said on its website late Friday.

Earlier this month, a self-driving Volvo SUV being tested by ride-hailing service Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

Tesla Inc. defended its Autopilot feature, saying that while it doesn’t prevent all accidents, it makes them less likely to occur than is the case for vehicles without it.

Federal investigators are looking into last week’s crash, as well a separate crash in January of a Tesla Model S that may have been operating under the Autopilot system.

Scientist, Pop Culture Icon Stephen Hawking Mourned at Cambridge Funeral

Crowds lined the streets of Cambridge, England, on Saturday for the funeral of one of the world’s most famous scientists: physicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 at age 76.

The scientist, confined for decades to a wheelchair and voice synthesizer because of the disease ALS, was known for his charisma, curiosity, and a crackling sense of humor. His science books and television cameos made him a pop-culture icon.

Hawking described his research as seeking “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Hawking’s funeral was held Saturday at the Cambridge University church known as Great St. Mary’s. As the funeral procession arrived, bells rang 76 times — once for each year of Hawking’s life.

In addition to Hawking’s family members, caretakers, former students, and admirers, the ceremony was attended by a number of famous faces. Among them was actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in an award-winning film biography of his life called The Theory of Everything, released in 2014.

Redmayne’s co-star, Felicity Jones, model Lily Cole, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, and Britain’s Astronomer Royal, the Lord Rees of Ludlow (Martin Rees), were also there.

The eulogy, read by professor Faye Dowker, praised Hawking as someone “revered for his devotion as a scholar to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Hawking will be given one last high honor: his remains are to be interred in Westminster Abbey among some of Britain’s most legendary intellectuals. Hawking will take his place next to 17th-century mathematical scientist Isaac Newton and near 19th-century evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin.

Russia’s World Cup Drives Some Students to Rare Protests

Many students would be delighted to have the World Cup in town, but not Maria Cheremnova.

 

The 20-year-old physics student in Moscow is one of thousands campaigning against the June 14-July 15 soccer tournament, which is set to disrupt academic life across the country.

 

There will be a 25,000-capacity fan zone outside the main building at Russia’s prestigious Moscow State University during exam season. In other cities, exams have been brought forward and thousands of police are set to move into dorm rooms.

 

The Moscow fan zone – a public viewing area with a big screen, beer and music – is on prime real estate near the vast Luzhniki arena, the river and the main university building, a Stalin-era colossus that ranks among the Russian capital’s most recognizable structures.

 

 The building is also home to around 6,500 students. Residents say it doesn’t have great soundproofing.

 

“I came to university to study, not to watch football and listen to that noise,” Cheremnova said. “Imagine 25,000 people and the events at night. It’ll all be visible, with lights, a big screen, music and fans, who aren’t very quiet guys. It’s going to stop people sleeping before their exams. It’s just awful.”

 

 It will also mean extra strain on already struggling transport networks – the fan zone is two subway stops from Luzhniki stadium – and fans could damage a nearby nature reserve, Cheremnova claimed.

A group of Moscow State University students and recent graduates has gathered more than 4,600 signatures demanding the fan zone be moved to another location. They said more students and staff would have signed but feared retaliation from the university administration. When attempting to deliver the petition to the rector’s office, security guards blocked the way and elevator access was cut to that floor only, supposedly for repair.

 

Russian universities have little tradition of student protest. While they were hotbeds of activism before the Russian Revolution of 1917, in Soviet times access to a college education was closely linked to political loyalty and membership of groups like the Young Communist League.

 

World Cup organizers have revised earlier plans for Moscow’s fan zone to be larger and closer to the university. FIFA said “to lessen the impact of the event on students and the adjacent infrastructure of the university, it was agreed to move the stage away from the main building by several meters, to reduce the capacity to 25,000 spectators and to change access flows.”

 

Opposition not only in Moscow

Across Russia, the tournament has brought upheaval for students.

 

The Russian academic year often runs well into the summer months, and late June is usually prime time for exams.

 

In most of the 11 host cities, university dorms are due to turn into temporary barracks for police and National Guard troops brought in from out of town for the tournament.

 

Many universities have brought forward examinations, often by more than a month, to avoid the World Cup and free up dorm space for security forces.

 

That means semesters have been cut short with little warning, forcing students to cram more studies into less time. Cheremnova said that some Moscow State University students were told to prepare for earlier examinations, only for the decision to be reversed.

At the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, semesters run back-to-back since “the winter vacation was postponed until the summer period,” according to spokesman Andrei Svechnikov.

 

What’s angering students more than anything else is the prospect of being forced to move out of rooms they’ve paid for.

 

Despite official denials from the Education and Science Ministry that any students will be kicked out to make way for security forces, more than 2,800 students have signed a petition against alleged removals.

 

“There will be no forced eviction of students under this process,” the ministry told The Associated Press, adding that security forces will “not disrupt the learning process.”

 

The AP contacted 17 universities cited in local media reports as planning to evict students for the World Cup. Of those, six said no students would be forced to move, one said a small number would be required to move to other dorms, and 10 failed to reply.

 

In many cities, students report mixed messages from university officials over accommodation and study schedules.

 

Zhokhangir Mirzadzhanov, a student in the western city of Kaliningrad, said his university initially offered to buy tickets for students to leave the city and free up dorm space for the tournament but details remained unclear.

 

“There are a lot of simple issues that they still can’t answer,” he said. “What comes next, no one knows.”

Pope Leads Good Friday Observances in Rome

Pope Francis presided over solemn Good Friday services amid tight security at Rome’s Colosseum for the Via Crucis procession. Italian police and army soldiers were on high alert, with Holy Week coinciding with a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic extremists around Italy.

Francis presided at a traditional candle-lit Way of the Cross procession around Rome’s ancient Colosseum. Some 20,000 people turned out to take part in the event with the pope on the most somber day in the Christian liturgical calendar, which commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross.

Rome authorities increased security this year with checks carried out as the faithful approached the area. Italian police carried out four raids against suspected supporters of Islamist terrorism, arresting seven people, including one man who was believed to have been planning a truck attack.

The Way of the Cross procession marks 14 events, called stations, beginning with Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s condemning Jesus to death, until his burial in a tomb. This year the meditations at each station were written by Catholic high school and college students in keeping with Francis’ decision to dedicate 2018 to addressing the hopes and concerns of young Catholics.

At the end, he delivered a meditation of his own, denouncing those who seek power, money and conflict. He prayed that the Catholic Church be always an “ark of salvation, a source of certainty and truth.”

Pope Francis also said many should feel “shame because our generations are leaving young people a world that is fractured by divisions and wars, a world devoured by selfishness where young people, children, the sick and the elderly are marginalized.”

The pope praised those in the Church who are trying to arouse “humanity’s sleeping conscience” through their work helping the poor, immigrants, and prison inmates.

Earlier, the pope presided over a solemn Passion of the Lord service in St. Peter’s Basilica which was kept open despite several pieces of plaster having come crashing down from a pillar of the church on Thursday. The damage was swiftly repaired.

    

Thousands of faithful filled the basilica. Francis lay prostrate in prayer on the marble pavement in front of the altar at the start of the chant-filled evening service. Later, the crucifix was carried in procession from the back of the basilica to the pope who then kissed it. The other concelebrants followed his example.

On Holy Saturday, in the evening, the pope will celebrate the solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by the joyful Easter Sunday Mass marking what Christians observe as Christ’s resurrection.

 

Border Agency Clarifies Building, Location of Border Wall

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!”

The tweet came amid much reporting about the president’s efforts to get the military to fund construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border because the recent omnibus spending bill did not fully fund the  wall. 

The result has led to confusion about what is funded and what is actually being built.

Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) provided some answers.

The omnibus spending bill, passed by Congress a week ago, provides funding for approximately 161 kilometers (100 miles) of “border wall system,” CBP Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello told reporters.

Most of this will be used to replace or repair existing barriers along the border. Only a small portion will be used to build new wall. 

“As [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has pointed out, it does not fully fund our needs in the most critical locations,” Vitiello said.

“Our agents and officers have decades of experience and they know their operational needs. We provided Congress with a fact-based and needs-driven border security improvement plan that clearly sets out the requirements for securing the border.

“The truth is walls work and the data show it and agents know it,” he added.

Vitiello said CPB and its parent agency, DHS, want 10 times the length of wall for which Congress provided funding. The agencies would like to see barriers along 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the U.S. southern border. Right now, there are walls or fencing along 1,052 kilometers (650 miles).

VOA’s Immigration Unit contributed to this report.

Colombian Catholic Churches Donate Communion Wafers to Venezuela 

Catholic churches in Colombia have donated a quarter-million communion wafers to congregations in neighboring Venezuela, where a food crisis has led to shortages of the holy bread.

The Catholic diocese of Cucuta in Colombia said its members braved heavy rains this week to deliver the wafers over a bridge that connects the two countries ahead of the Easter holiday.

Venezuela’s food shortages have affected churches’ ability to get wheat flour, an ingredient needed to make communion wafers used during Mass throughout the year, including Easter Sunday.

Local news reports say some churches in Venezuela are dividing the communion wafers in half so that more people are able to take communion. La Croix International, a Catholic daily, said churches in the state of Mérida in the Andes had no altar bread for Mass February 25.

The Catholic Diocese of Cucuta posted about its recent donation of communion wafers to churches in neighboring Venezuela on Facebook, showing pictures of volunteers carrying large boxes filled with the wafers.

Venezuela’s economic crisis, fueled by a decline in oil production, has led to shortages of many staple food items, including wheat, sugar, eggs and coffee.

Mexican Candidates Vow to Sweep Out Corruption in Campaign Launch

Mexican presidential candidates on Friday kicked off a three-month race to the election with pledges to transform an entrenched corrupt political system.

Two of four presidential hopefuls launched their campaigns just after the midnight starting gun for the countdown to Mexico’s July 1 vote, tapping into disapproval over corruption scandals under the ruling party that has governed for most of the past century.

Voter anger so far favors leftwing dissenter Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 64, who will launch his own anti-corruption focused campaign on Sunday and holds a double digit lead in most polls.

Second-place contender Ricardo Anaya, 39, running for the right-left coalition “For Mexico in Front,” launched his campaign just after midnight on Friday, hosting a hackathon for 1,000 youths to work together on technology-driven ideas to combat corruption and violence.

“Mexico is going to change,” Anaya told the crowd of cheering young people. “This corrupt government has its days numbered.”

Kickbacks and pilfering that undermine public services, believed to cost Mexico billions of dollars each year, have emerged as the main campaign issue.

All the candidates vow a clampdown, with measures including removing immunity for the president and creating a truth commission to study past crimes.

Anaya has pitched himself as a forward-thinking alternative both to the unpopular PRI and Lopez Obrador’s personalized leadership.

A Lopez Obrador government could mark a change in direction for Mexico, with a less accommodating approach to the United States and a more cautious view of foreign investment. He has pledged to closely study billions of dollars of energy and infrastructure contracts.

Critics have said uncertainty surrounding his policies will choke business, while Lopez Obrador says uncertainty is better than turning a blind eye to corruption.

Monica Vargas, a 22-year old literature student from the central state of Tlaxcala, said she supported Anaya because he was listening to young people. She said many of her schoolmates had dropped out of college due to lack of funds.

“As a Mexican I feel very disappointed … we realize how rich our public officials have become, and we the people are always lagging behind,” Vargas said.

Former first lady Margarita Zavala, in fourth place in the polls and the only independent to land enough certified voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, also kicked off her campaign in the capital, taking aim at what she said was dishonesty among her rivals.

“We have three candidates who represent the snare of money in politics, the politics of corruption,” she told supporters at the famed Angel of Independence monument.

Mexico saw a record number of killings last year as organized crime gangs smuggled drugs, fuel and people while corruption scandals hit the credibility of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The centrist PRI has ruled Mexico continuously since 1929, except for a 12-year break when Vicente Fox and his successor led the National Action Party (PAN) to power in 2000 and 2006.

Variously described as a left-winger, a populist and a nationalist, Lopez Obrador quit the PRI in the 1980s. His subsequent political career included a stint as mayor of Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises.

The campaign of PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade, 49, a five times minister who is not a PRI member and has served under a PAN administration, concedes that political parties are deeply mistrusted but says he is best placed to capture the anti-corruption mood.

His Sunday campaign launch will emphasize vows to fix problems without undoing economic progress. For many voters, July 1 will be about rejecting either the corruption of the ruling party, or Lopez Obrador, said PAN Senator Ernesto Ruffo, backing Anaya.

“This is an election not for, but against,” he said.

Pippa Middleton’s Father-in-Law Is Subject of Rape Probe in France, Court Source Says

The father-in-law of Pippa Middleton, whose sister Kate is married to Britain’s Prince William, has been placed under formal investigation over suspected rape of a minor, a court source told Reuters on Friday.

David Matthews, who is the father of Pippa Middleton’s husband, James Matthews, was arrested Tuesday by the Juvenile Protection Brigade (BPM) and formally put under investigation for suspected rape of a minor under his authority, said the source, confirming a report on Europe 1 radio.

Paris prosecutors arrested Matthews during a visit to France, and later released him and placed him under judicial control, the source said. The source did not say when he was released. French police can hold suspects 24 or 48 hours in such cases.

The source said the alleged rape took place in 1998 or 1999. Europe 1 reported that a complaint was filed in 2017.

Reuters could not immediately reach Matthews nor any spokespeople or lawyers for him.

Being placed under judicial control means that prosecutors have attached certain conditions to his release or imposed certain limits on whom he can meet or where he can go. The source did not say what conditions had been attached in Matthews’ case.

Pippa Middleton came to national attention in Britain as the maid of honor at her sister’s royal wedding to William in 2011. Her own lavish wedding to James Matthews last May was one of the most widely reported social events of the year, attended by William and his brother Harry, grandsons of Queen Elizabeth.

Could Enemies Target Undersea Cables That Link the World?

Russian ships are skulking around underwater communications cables, causing the U.S. and its allies to worry the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.

Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Does it want the West to worry it might? Is there a more innocent explanation? Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t saying.

But whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.

Without undersea cables, a bank in Asian countries couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype his parents in the United States.

Small passageways

All this information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around Earth nearly 25 times.

Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.

The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.

It’s not Moscow’s warships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and minisubs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.

One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified [U.S. military] information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar not only can connect to top-secret cables but also can cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Preparing for sabotage

There is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, said Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.

Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”

Members of Congress are wondering, too. 

Representative Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat on a House subcommittee on sea power, said of the Russians, “The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and prowling around the cables shows that they are doing something.”

Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, an Armed Services Committee member, said Moscow’s goal appears to be to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.”

The Yantar’s movements have previously raised eyebrows.

On October 18, 2016, a Syrian telecom company ordered emergency maintenance to repair a cable in the Mediterranean that provides internet connectivity to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance began. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It’s unknown what work it did while there.

Watkins described another episode on November 5, 2016, when a submarine cable linking Persian Gulf nations experienced outages in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and headed to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable runs ashore. Connectivity was restored just hours before the Yantar arrived on November 9. The boat stayed stationary over the site for several more days.

Undersea cables have been targets before.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications, hoping to learn more about the U.S.S.R.’s submarine-launched nuclear capability.

Eavesdropping by spies

More recently, British and American intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on fiber-optic cables, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships carrying miles of fiber-optic cable that thieves salvaged from the sea for profit. The heist disrupted service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three scuba divers off Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable stretching from France to Singapore. Five years on, questions remain about the attack on a cable responsible for about a third of all internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.

Despite the relatively few publicly known incidents of sabotage, most outages are due to accidents.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

But even accidental cuts can harm U.S. military operations. 

In 2008 in Iraq, unmanned U.S. surveillance flights nearly screeched to a halt one day at Balad Air Base, not because of enemy mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had snagged a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, situated in the “Sunni Triangle” northwest of Baghdad.

The severed cable had linked controllers based in the United States with unmanned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, said retired Air Force Colonel Dave Lujan of Hampton, Virginia.

“Say you’re operating a remote-controlled car and all of a sudden you can’t control it,” said Lujan, who was deputy commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at the base when the little-publicized outage lasted for two to three days. “That’s a big impact,” he said, describing how U.S. pilots had to fly the missions instead.