Grenfell Tower Survivors Weep as Inquiry Begins in London

Survivors of a devastating high-rise fire in London wept Monday as relatives paid tribute to some of the 72 victims at the opening of an inquiry into Britain’s deadliest blaze in decades.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry is beginning with two weeks of tributes to those who died when a fire that began in a faulty fridge raced through the 24-story apartment block in June 2017. The statements from friends and family members are meant to keep the victims at the center of the inquiry, which will try to determine how the disaster happened and prevent a similar tragedy happening in the future.

“When we die, we live on in the memories of those who knew and loved us,” said retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, who is leading the inquiry. “It is fitting therefore that the opening hearings … should be dedicated to the memory of those who died.”

The victims included baby Logan Gomes, who was stillborn after his family escaped from the 21st floor of the building.

“He might not be here physically, but he will always be here in our hearts, and will be forever,” said his father Marcio Gomes, his voice breaking. “I know he’s here, with God, right next to me, giving me strength and courage to take this forward.”

The inquiry heard a message left by Mohamed Amied Neda from inside his apartment.

“Goodbye, we are leaving this world now, goodbye,” said the 57-year-old, who came to Britain from Afghanistan and ran a chauffeur company. He was found dead after falling from the building. His wife and son were left comatose but survived.

Mohammadou Saye remembered his 24-year-old daughter Khadija Saye, a promising visual artist whose work was shown at last year’s Venice Biennale.

“Her burning passion was photography, encouraged by her mother, Mary Mendy, who also lost her life in the same fire,” he said in a statement read by a lawyer.

“Khadija said to me one day: `Daddy, I’m in love with images.”

Moore-Bick’s inquiry will look at causes of the blaze, the response of local authorities and the country’s high-rise building regulations. But some survivors are critical because it won’t investigate wider issues around social housing that many residents had wanted to include.

Many residents accuse officials in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London’s richest boroughs, of ignoring their safety concerns because the publicly owned tower was home to a largely immigrant and working-class population.

Police say they are considering individual or corporate manslaughter charges in the blaze, but no one has yet been charged.

Swedes Told to Prepare for Conflict in Cold War-Style Booklet

Sweden will send out instructions to its citizens next week on how to cope with an outbreak of war, as the country faces an assertive Russia across the Baltic Sea.

The 20-page pamphlet titled “If Crisis or War Comes” gives advice on getting clean water, spotting propaganda and finding a bomb shelter, in the first public awareness campaign of its kind since the days of the Cold War.

It also tells Swedes they have a duty to act if their country is threatened. “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” the booklet says. “All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.”

The leaflet’s publisher, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, did not spell out where an attack might come from. “Even if Sweden is safer than most countries, threats do exist,” agency head Dan Eliasson told journalists.

But Sweden and other countries in the region have been on high alert since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, 2014. They have also accused Russia of repeated violations of their airspace – assertions that Moscow has either dismissed or not responded to.

The Kremlin has in the past insisted that it does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and has accused Western powers of stoking “Russophobia.”

Stockholm has repeatedly cited Russian aggression as the reason for a series of security measures including the reintroduction of conscription this year and the stationing of troops on the Baltic island of Gotland.

The Swedish government decided to start increasing military spending from 2016, reversing years of declines.

The booklet on its way to Sweden’s 4.8 million households warns that supplies of food, medicine and gasoline could run short during a crisis.

It also lists oat milk, tins of Bolognese sauce and salmon balls as examples of food that people should store in case of an emergency along with tortillas and sardines.

The publication describes what an air raid warning sounds like in the first such publication handed out since 1961.

Sweden has not been at war with anyone for more than 200 years, not since its war with Norway in 1814. It was officially neutral during World War II.


Poland’s Walesa Visits Disabled Protesters in Parliament

Former Polish president and anti-communist leader Lech Walesa met Monday with disabled people and their parents who have been staging a sit-in in the parliament for over a month, offering them his solidarity and strongly denouncing the country’s populist government.

Several young adults in wheelchairs and their parents, their full-time caretakers, want more state aid, a demand the government has not fully met. While the numbers of protesters are small, their occupation of a corridor in parliament has received heavy coverage in the Polish media, becoming a headache for the conservative ruling party.

The parliament speaker has reacted by restricting access to some reporters, which itself is sparking complaints to prosecutors.

Walesa, a strong government critic, joined them Monday morning for about an hour, taking a seat and telling them: “You called me, so here I am.”

“I would like to make a contribution to your fight,” Walesa said.

The ruling party, Law and Justice, is strongly pro-Catholic and won elections in 2015 promising to help the poor and other disadvantaged people, but now faces accusations of treating society’s weakest members in a heartless way.

The president, prime minister and the minister for social policies have all visited the protesters, and the president this month signed a law raising the monthly benefits for disabled adults to 1,030 zlotys (239 euros; $281) from 865 zlotys. But they say the state can’t afford to pay them the additional 500 zlotys per month that they seek.

The protesters have asked to also meet party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but there has been no meeting. Kaczynski has been recently hospitalized, reportedly for knee surgery.

Law and Justice leaders also accuse opposition lawmakers, who let the protesters into parliament, of using them as a tool in a political fight. With criticism rising, the parliament issued a statement on the weekend saying officials there were treating the protesters with “respect and empathy.”

Walesa listened to one of the mothers saying the families have felt humiliated by the government. Most of his comments were directed at criticizing the government.

“Those few people who are in power are chiefly intent on sowing discord. Through quarrels and feuding they are trying to stay in power,” Walesa said. “We must remove these people from power as soon as we can. They fight evil with evil and lawlessness with lawlessness.”

Walesa was the leader of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s that helped topple communism. As Poland emerged as a new democracy he served as president from 1990-95.

Today he is deeply disliked by leaders of Law and Justice, who accuse him of having collaborated with the communist secret police in the 1970s and of mismanaging the country’s transition from communism to democracy, allowing former communists to continue to have too much influence in the new system.

Walesa denies those accusations.

LGBT Community Cheers Pope’s ‘God Made You Like This’ Remark

Pope Francis’ reported comments to a gay man that “God made you like this” have been embraced by the LGBT community as another sign of Francis’ desire to make gay people feel welcomed and loved in the Catholic Church.

Juan Carlos Cruz, the main whistleblower in Chile’s clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandal, said Monday he spoke to Francis about his homosexuality during their recent meetings at the Vatican. The pope invited Cruz and other victims of a Chilean predator priest to discuss their cases last month.

Cruz said he told Francis how Chile’s bishops used his sexual orientation as a weapon to try to discredit him, and of the pain the personal attacks had caused him.

“He said, ‘Look Juan Carlos, the pope loves you this way. God made you like this and he loves you,'” Cruz told The Associated Press.

The Vatican declined to confirm or deny the remarks in keeping with its policy not to comment on the pope’s private conversations. The comments first were reported by Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

Official church teaching calls for gay men and lesbians to be respected and loved, but considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has sought to make the church more welcoming to gays, most famously with his 2013 comment “Who am I to judge?”

He also has spoken of his own ministry to gay and transgender people, insisting they are children of God, loved by God and deserving of accompaniment by the church.

As a result, some sought to downplay the significance of the comments as merely being in line with Francis’ pastoral-minded attitude.

In addition, there was a time not so long ago when the Catholic Church officially taught that sexual orientation was not something people choose, the implication being it was how God made them.

The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the dense summary of Catholic teaching published by St. John Paul II in 1992, said gay individuals “do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.”

The updated edition, which is the only edition available online and on the Vatican website, was revised to remove the reference to homosexuality not being a choice. The revised edition says: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”   

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for equality for LGBT Catholics, said the pope’s comments were “tremendous” and would do a lot of good.

“It would do a lot better if he would make these statements publicly, because LGBT people need to hear that message from religious leaders, from Catholic leaders,” he said.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit whose book “Building a Bridge” called for the church to find new pastoral ways of ministering to gays, noted that the pope’s comments were in a private conversation, not a public pronouncement or document. But citing the original version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Martin said they were nevertheless significant.

“The pope is saying what every reputable biologist and psychologist will tell you, which is that people do not choose their sexual orientation,” Martin said in a telephone interview.

A great failing of the church, he said, is that many Catholics have been reluctant to say so, which then “makes people feel guilty about something they have no control over.”

Martin’s book is being published this week in Italian, with a preface by the Francis-appointed bishop of Bologna, Monsignor Matteo Zuppi, a sign that the message of acceptance is being embraced even in traditionally conservative Italy.



Former Yugoslav Autocratic Leader’s Iconic Yacht Given New Life

Decades of rust are covering its hull, the furniture is broken in its once luxurious salons, its powerful engines are permanently idle. But against all odds, the iconic yacht that once belonged to the late Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito has been given a new lease on life.

The once-imposing ship that hosted Hollywood celebrities, some 70 world leaders and took Tito up the River Thames for a historic meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill will be turned into a floating museum.

The ship, called Galeb, or Seagull, is moored at the northern Croatian Adriatic port of Rijeka. After its turbulent history, including two sinkings since it was launched in 1938 and a failed purchase by a Greek tycoon, it was destined for a junkyard.

But authorities in Rijeka, the city that has been chosen by the European Union to be the European Capital of Culture in 2020, decided to completely refurbish it in a 5.4 million euro ($6.4 million) project that will start in 2019.

“Galeb is a ship with very interesting and turbulent history,” Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel said. “Of course the most interesting part of that history is when it was a ship belonging to President Josip Broz Tito.”

The decision to renovate the 5,100-ton, 106-meter (350-foot) vessel has triggered anger from Croatia’s nationalists.

They blame Tito, who ruled communist Yugoslavia for 35 years until he died in 1980, for autocratic rule and for forcing Croatia to join the former federation of six republics that comprised Yugoslavia.

The boat has become a symbol of Tito’s well documented life of luxury and splendor. And his critics in Croatia want it to be destroyed.

But Obersnel says the renovation plan will go forward. “First of all, it’s our history and we cannot change that history,” Obersnel said. “During that period, we could talk about good things and maybe some not so good things. But that’s our history.”

The decaying ship hulk has been towed to an isolated dock in the harbor, with its bow pointing at downtown Rijeka, once a drab port town that is gradually becoming one of Croatia’s main tourist destinations.

“The idea of renovation is to make it a ship museum to primarily show its history, all of its life phases that were many and very interesting,” said Kristina Pavec from Rijeka’s City Museum, which is overseeing the project.

The ship’s once luxurious salons and stairways are full of broken down 1960s furniture. Torn carpets and wallpaper lines the decks and bulkheads. In his private quarters, Tito’s walk-in closet for ties, shoes and flashy military uniforms stands empty; his bed mattress is still there, but the bed is not. On the captain’s fly bridge, naval maps flutter in spring breeze and the engine order telegraph is pointing at idle.

In Tito’s era, the ship belonged to the Yugoslav naval academy. After the bloody breakup of the federation in the 1990s, it first was parked in Montenegro before being sold to Croatia for $150,000.

Built in Genoa, Italy, the ship was intended for transport of tropical fruit from Africa. During World War II, the Nazis used it as an auxiliary naval ship to lay mines. The ship was eventually sunk in Allied bombings of Rijeka’s port toward the end of the war.

After the war, it was completely reconstructed and turned into a Yugoslav naval academy training ship. A VIP bloc was added so the yacht could serve as Tito’s luxury residence on his frequent sea voyages. The crew typically included 200 sailors and some 20 VIP guests, including an orchestra that entertained them during parties.

The late president preferred it to airplane travel and used it extensively on tours to Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. It became famous in 1953 when Tito sailed into London to meet Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II as the first Communist leader to visit Britain after World War II.

World leaders entertained on the ship included late Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s Indira Gandhi. Tito was particularly excited to welcome movie celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who played Tito in a 1973 war epic filmed in Yugoslavia.

From Airlines to Pizza Parlors, EU Businesses Adopt Data Law

Lisa Meyer’s hair salon is a cozy place where her mother serves homemade macaroons, children climb on chairs and customers chat above the whirr of hairdryers.

Most of the time Meyer is focused on hairstyles, color trends and keeping up with appointments. But now she’s worried about how the European Union’s new data protection law will affect her business as she contacts customers to seek permission to store their details. Even though she supports the law, Meyer fears it may cut her mailing list by 90 percent as people choose to withhold their data or simply overlook her emails.


“It will be difficult to market upcoming events,” she said at her shop, Lisa Hauck Hair & Beauty in London.


Businesses from pizza parlors to airlines across the EU’s 28 countries are bombarding customers with emails seeking consent to use personal data as they rush to comply with the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect May 25. While much of the attention has focused on how technology giants like Facebook and Google will comply with the rules, consumers are learning firsthand that they apply to any firm, large or small, that stores personal data.

The new rules , called GDPR for short, are designed to make it easier for EU residents to give and withdraw permission for companies to use personal information, requiring consent forms that are written in simple language and no more than one-page long. Companies that already hold such data have to reach out to customers and ask for permission to retain it. Authorities can fine companies up to 4 percent of annual revenue or 20 million euros ($23.6 million), whichever is higher, for breaching the rules.

As a result, email boxes all over the continent are being swamped with messages from opticians, hotels, greeting card companies and even charities that fear stiff penalties for non-compliance.


In an effort to rise above the clutter, some companies are trying to spice up their approach as they try to ensure continued access to information vital to their businesses.


The St. Pancras Hotels Group promises that “only nominated people have access to your details, and they are kept really safe, guarded by our very own British Bulldogs. And a rude punk rocker.” Britain’s Channel 4 television offered up a video featuring one of the country’s best-known comedians explaining GDPR and how it will affect viewers. Many are using animations, like this one from like France’s mobile operator Bouygues, to explain the rules.


Regulators say the law applies to anyone who collects, uses or stores personal data. That can be a burden for small businesses that are forced to hire outside lawyers or consultants because they don’t have the staff or expertise to deal with the law.


The EU’s one-size-fits-all approach is one of the flaws in the law, according to Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy advocate who has formed a non-profit to take action against big companies that deliberately violate the new rules.


When the rules were being discussed, industry lobbyists sought to weaken the law by creating uncertainty, and as a result there are no clear guidelines that exempt small companies, Schrems told the BBC recently.


“GDPR is a prime example of corporate law gone wrong, because it’s helpful for big companies,” he said. “They have to do all of this anyways and they can use the uncertainty in the law to kind of get around things. But it leaves small companies that don’t … have a law department, or something like that, in a situation with a lot of uncertainty.”


Meyer falls under the new rules’ jurisdiction because she keeps data. Like many hair colorists, she keeps a card on each of her clients that notes whether they are allergic to any chemicals used in the dyes. That’s considered personal medical information that must be protected.


She took a data protection course to learn about her obligations and avoid legal bills.


“I find it actually quite scary how data is being used so carelessly,” Meyer said. “It’s a good wake-up call. It’s made me more aware.”


But many others have been caught off guard.


A survey by French consultancy Capgemini says that 85 percent of European firms will not have completed their preparations for GDPR this week. It finds that British businesses are the most advanced and Swedish ones have the most work to do still.


A survey conducted by Britain’s Federation of Small Businesses estimates that complying with the rules will cost an average of 1,030 pounds ($1,390) per company.

“For a small business, it’s hugely onerous,” said Mark Elliott, who runs the digital marketing company, Sparks4Growth Ltd. He knows other small business owners who are worried about the extra red tape and costs of complying with the law. “I think, quite simply, they left us open to the lions,” he said of regulators.


EU officials say GDPR is necessary to catch up with all the technological advances since 1995, when the last comprehensive European rules on data privacy were put in place.


As technology advances, data becomes more important. The ability to analyze everything from medical records to the weather holds enormous potential, with suggestions it will make us healthier, improve traffic flows and help scientists learn more about the movements of endangered species, to name but a few items.


But with that potential comes concern about privacy.

The threat was vividly illustrated earlier this year when allegations surfaced that a little known campaign consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, misused data from millions of Facebook accounts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That touched off a global debate over internet privacy and triggered speculation other jurisdictions will soon follow the EU in tightening data protection laws.


That is just fine with Meyer, who thinks society needs a new etiquette for dealing with personal data.


“It’s like sitting up straight at the table. It’s like not talking too loud on the bus,” she said. Respect for data “has to get into our culture.”


EU Parliament to Broadcast Zuckerberg Hearing

A European Parliament meeting on Tuesday with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be broadcast live, parliamentary officials and the company said on Monday after controversy over plans for a closed-door hearing.

Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who was criticized by legislators and some senior EU officials over arrangements for the discussion on public privacy concerns, tweeted that it was “great news” that Zuckerberg had agreed to a live web stream.

A Facebook spokeswoman said: “We’re looking forward to the meeting and happy for it to be live streamed.”

Zuckerberg, who founded the U.S. social media giant, will be in Europe to defend the company after scandal over its sale of personal data to a British political consultancy which worked on U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign, among others.

He will meet Tajani and leaders of parties in the European Parliament in Brussels from 6:15 p.m. (1615 GMT) on Tuesday.

He is also due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.

Xinhau: China Launches Satellite to Explore Dark Side of Moon

China launched a relay satellite early on Monday designed to establish a communication link between earth and a planned lunar probe that will explore the dark side of the moon, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Citing the China National Space Administration, Xinhua said the satellite was launched at 5:28 a.m. (2128 GMT Sunday) on a Long March-4C rocket from the Xichang launch center in the southwest of the country.

“The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the moon,” Xinhua quoted Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, as saying.

It said the satellite, known as Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, will settle in an orbit about 455,000 km (282,555 miles) from Earth and will be the world’s first communication satellite operating there.

China aims to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030. It is planning to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.

However, while China has insisted its ambitions are purely peaceful, the U.S. Defense Department has accused it of pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis. 

US Imposes Sanctions on Venezuela After Maduro Win

The United States imposed economic sanctions Monday on Venezuela for what it said was the country’s “fraudulent” re-election of President Nicolas Maduro to a second six-year term.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order that banned Americans from oil transactions with Venezuela, once one of the world’s top oil producers.

A senior White House official told reporters “today’s executive order closes another avenue for corruption that we have observed being used. It denies corrupt Venezuelan officials the ability to improperly value and sell off public assets in return for kickbacks.”

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Maduro’s re-election “an attack on constitutional order and an affront to Venezuela’s tradition of democracy. Until the Maduro regime restores a democratic path in Venezuela through free, fair and transparent elections, the government faces isolation from the international community.”

Pompeo declared, “The United States stands with democratic nations in support of the Venezuelan people and will take swift economic and diplomatic actions to support the restoration of their democracy.”

Maduro hailed his re-election as a “historic record” after officials said he won 68 percent of the vote, far ahead of the 21 percent won by his closest rival, ex-army officer Henri Falcon. But with months of economic turmoil in Venezuela, marked by food and medicine shortages, and violent unrest, a historic 52 percent of voters abstained from voting, and the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition boycotted the election as a “farce.”

Maduro faced growing international protests about the vote, with Argentina, Brazil and Canada all recalling their ambassadors from Caracas.

Pompeo said, “Sunday’s process was choreographed by a regime too unpopular and afraid of its own people to risk free elections and open competition. It stacked the Venezuelan courts and National Electoral Council with biased members aligned with the regime. It silenced dissenting voices. It banned major opposition parties and leaders from participating.”

The top U.S. diplomat said as of a week ago, “more than 338 political prisoners remained jailed, more than in all other countries in the hemisphere combined.”

He said the Maduro regime “stifled the free press. State sources dominated media coverage, unfairly favoring the incumbent. Most contemptible of all, the regime selectively parceled out food to manipulate the votes of hungry Venezuelans.”

Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver, was expected to win despite a deepening crisis that has made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production plummets.

Former state governor Falcon was Maduro’s main challenger, but his chances were hurt by the presence of a second anti-Maduro candidate in the race, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.

“We do not recognize this electoral process as valid, as true,” Falcon said Sunday.”For us, there were no elections.We have to have new elections in Venezuela.”

Bertucci also called for a new vote.

Falcon condemned the government’s placement of red tents near polling stations around the country, where Venezuelans were asked to scan their “fatherland cards” after voting in the hope of receiving a prize.The state-issued cards are used to receive benefits, including food boxes. Critics said the scheme amounted to vote-buying.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized the election as a “sham, neither free nor fair.”

“The illegitimate result of this fake process is a further blow to the proud democratic tradition of Venezuela,” Pence said in a statement Monday. “America stands against dictatorship and with the people of Venezuela. The Maduro regime must allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela and must allow its people to be heard.”

Maduro’s victory could trigger more sanctions and more censure from the European Union and Latin America.

Maduro, the self-described “son” of Hugo Chavez, said on Saturday that he is battling a U.S. “imperialist” plot to crush socialism and take over the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.

On Friday, the Trump administration added a key Maduro ally to a growing list of top officials targeted by financial sanctions, accusing socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of drug trafficking and embezzlement.

Maduro’s opponents said the leftist leader has destroyed Venezuela’s once-wealthy economy and ruthlessly crushed dissent. Polls also show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles.

More than 1 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years for a better life abroad, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that is almost impossible to find.

VOA’s Spanish Service contributed.