Across Asia’s Borders, Trafficking Survivors Dial in for Justice

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.”

Scan on Exit: Can Blockchain Save Moldova’s Children from Traffickers?

Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia — an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova’s impoverished north.

That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.

“They gave me a [fake] birth certificate stating I was 14,” Laura, who declined to give her real name, told Reuters in an interview.

That was enough to get her through border controls as she traveled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.

It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura — one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.

Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves — mostly women and girls — in forced labor and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.

The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers’ registry to fight forced labor to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations migration agency (IOM).

Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims — 10 percent of whom were children — since 2001.

In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.

She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.

“I had a lot of suffering,” the 36-year-old said. “I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child.”

​Scans and bribes

Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.

Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.

More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.

“A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending [more] time in the streets,” said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police unit.

Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.

ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain — or decentralized digital ledger shared by a network of computers — for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.

Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura’s ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.

With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.

A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.

Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians’ permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behavior to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.

“Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information,” said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watchlist of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.

Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action, as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.

​Tricked

Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.

But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims — children trafficked within Moldova’s borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.

“As long as we don’t have job opportunities … trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova,” said IOM’s Irina Arap.

Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking agency.

“For Moldova, this is not a very big problem,” she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.

But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.

“Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies,” said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova’s internal affairs ministry. “Usually organized crime uses them first and more successfully. … Any effort [to] secure at least one child is already worth trying.”

IBM Computer Proves Formidable Against 2 Human Debaters

An argumentative computer proved formidable against two human debaters as IBM gave its first public demonstration of new artificial intelligence technology it’s been working on for more than five years.

The new skills show that computers are getting better at mastering human language and speech.

The computer made its case for government-subsidized space research by pulling in evidence from its huge internal repository of newspapers, journals and other sources. After delivering opening arguments, the computer listened to a professional human debater’s counter-argument and spent four minutes rebutting it.

The company unveiled its Project Debater in San Francisco on Monday. IBM selected possible topics based on whether they were debatable, but neither the computer nor the human debaters knew the topic in advance. Nonetheless, the computer championed the topic fiercely with just a few awkward gaps in reasoning.

“Subsidizing space exploration is like investing in really good tires,” argued the computer system, its female voice embodied in a 5-foot-tall machine shaped like a monolith with TV screens on its sides. Such research would enrich the human mind, inspire young people and be a “very sound investment,” it said, making it more important even than good roads, schools or health care.

After closing arguments, it moved on to a second debate about telemedicine.

An IBM research team based in Israel began working on the project not long after IBM’s Watson computer beat two human quizmasters on a Jeopardy challenge in 2011.

But rather than just scanning a giant trove of data in search of factoids, IBM’s latest project taps into several more complex branches of AI. Search engine algorithms used by Google and Microsoft’s Bing use similar technology to digest and summarize written content and compose new paragraphs. Voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa rely on listening comprehension to answer questions posed by people. Google recently demonstrated an eerily human-like voice assistant that can call hair salons or restaurants to make appointments.

But IBM says it’s breaking new ground by creating a system that tackles deeper human practices of rhetoric and analysis, and how they’re used to discuss big questions whose answers aren’t always clear.

“If you think of the rules of debate, they’re far more open-ended than the rules of a board game,” said Ranit Aharonov, who manages the debater project.

IBM doesn’t try to declare a winner of the debates, but Noa Ovadia, one of the human debaters, said the computer was a formidable opponent even if it made a few too many blanket statements about space exploration being the pinnacle of human achievement.

Ovadia, a national debate champion in Israel, said she was impressed by its fluency in language and ability to construct sentences. She said the computer was able to “get to the bottom line of my arguments” and respond to them.

Among several outside experts IBM invited to attend Project Debater’s debut was Chris Reed, who directs the Centre for Argument Technology at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Reed said he was impressed by its grasp of “procatalepsis” — a rhetorical technique that involves anticipating an opponent’s argument and pre-emptively rebutting it.

As expected, the machine tends to be better than humans at bringing in numbers and other detailed supporting evidence. It’s also able to latch onto the most salient and attention-getting elements of an argument, and can even deliver some self-referential jokes about being a computer.

But it lacks tact, researchers said. Sometimes the jokes don’t come out right. And Monday, some of the sources it cited — such as a German official and an Arab sheikh — didn’t seem particularly germane.

“Humans tend to be better at using more expressive language, more original language,” said Dario Gil, IBM’s vice president of AI research. “They bring in their own personal experience as a way to illustrate the point. The machine doesn’t live in the real world or have a life that it’s able to tap into.”

There are no immediate plans to turn Project Debater into a commercial product, but Gil said it could be useful in the future in helping lawyers or other human workers make informed decisions.

WHO Lists Compulsive Video Gaming As Mental Health Problem

Parents suspicious that their children may be addicted to video games now have support from health authorities. The World Health Organization has listed “gaming disorder” as a new mental health problem on its 11th edition of  International Classification of Diseases, released on Monday. But as VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports, not all psychologists agree that compulsive gaming should be on that list.

Norway Tests Tiny Electric Plane, Sees Passenger Flights by 2025

Norway tested a two-seater electric plane on Monday and predicted a start to passenger flights by 2025 if new aviation technologies match a green shift that has made Norwegians the world’s top buyers of electric cars.

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Dag Falk-Petersen, head of state-run Avinor which runs most of Norway’s airports, took a few minutes’ flight around Oslo airport in an Alpha Electro G2 plane, built by Pipistrel in Slovenia.

“This is … a first example that we are moving fast forward” towards greener aviation, Solvik-Olsen told Reuters. “We do have to make sure it is safe – people won’t fly if they don’t trust it.”

He said plane makers such as Boeing and Airbus were developing electric aircraft and that battery prices were tumbling, making it feasible to reach a government goal of making all domestic flights in Norway electric by 2040.

Asked when passenger flights in electric planes could start, Falk-Petersen, the pilot, said: “My best guess is before 2025 … It should all be electrified by 2040.”

The two said the plane, with a takeoff weight of 570 kg (1255 lb), was cramped and buffeted by winds but far quieter than a conventional plane run on fossil fuels.

Norway tops the world league for per capita sales of electric cars such as Teslas, Nissan Leafs or Volkswagen Golfs, backed by incentives such as big tax breaks, free parking and exemptions from road tolls.

In May 2018, 56 percent of all cars sold in Norway were either pure electric or hybrids against 46 percent in the same month of 2017, according to official statistics.

Norway, a mountainous country of five million people where fjords and remote islands mean many short-hop routes of less than 200 kms, would be ideal for electric planes, Solvik-Olsen said. Also, 98 percent of electricity in Norway is generated from clean hydro power.

Some opposition politicians said the government needed to do far more to meet green commitments in the 200-nation Paris climate agreement.

“This is a start … but we have to make jet fuel a lot more expensive,” said Arild Hermstad, a leader of the Green Party.

The first electric planes flew across the English Channel in July 2015, including an Airbus E-Fan. French aviator Louis Bleriot who was first to fly across the Channel, in 1909, in a fossil-fuel powered plane.

Electric planes so far have big problems of weight, with bulky batteries and limited ranges. Both Falk-Petersen and Solvik-Olsen said they had been on strict diets before the flight.

“My wife is happy about it,” Solvik-Olsen said.

Intel Tops List of Tech Companies Fighting Forced Labor

Intel topped a list issued on Monday ranking how well technology companies combat the risk of forced labor in their supply chains, overtaking HP and Apple.

Most of the top 40 global technology companies assessed in the study by KnowTheChain, an online resource for business, had made progress since the last report was published in 2016. But the study found there was still room for improvement.

“The sector needs to advance their efforts further down the supply chain in order to truly protect vulnerable workers,” said Kilian Moote, project director of KnowTheChain, in a statement.

Intel, HP and Apple scored the highest on the list, which looked at factors including purchasing practices, monitoring and auditing processes. China-based BOE Technology Group and Taiwan’s Largan Precision came bottom.

Workers who make the components used by technology companies are often migrants vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, the report said. 

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Laborers in technology companies’ supply chains are sometimes charged high recruitment fees to get jobs, trapped in debt servitude, or deprived of their passports or other documents, the report said.

It highlighted a failure to give workers a voice through grievance mechanisms and tackle exploitative recruiting practices as the main areas of concern across the sector.

In recent years modern slavery has increasingly come under the global spotlight, putting ever greater regulatory and consumer pressure on firms to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor, child labor and other forms of slavery.

From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex with multiple layers across various countries — whether in sourcing the raw materials or creating the final product — making it hard to identify exploitation.

Overall, large technology companies fared better than smaller ones, suggesting a strong link between size and capacity to take action, the report said. Amazon, which ranked 20th, was a notable exception, it said.

“Top-ranking brands … are listening to workers in their supply chains and weeding out unscrupulous recruitment processes,” Phil Bloomer, head of the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for Amazon said the report drew from old and incomplete information and failed to take into account recently launched anti-slavery commitments and initiatives.

HP said it regularly assessed its supply chain to identify and address any concerns and risks of exploitation.

“We strive to ensure that workers in our supply chain have fair treatment, safe working conditions, and freely chosen employment,” said Annukka Dickens, HP’s director for human rights and supply chain responsibility.

Intel, Apple, BOE Technology and Largan Precision did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Google to Invest $550M in China E-commerce Giant JD.com

Google will invest $550 million in Chinese e-commerce powerhouse JD.com, part of the U.S. internet giant’s efforts to expand its presence in fast-growing Asian markets and battle rivals including Amazon.com.

The two companies described the investment announced on Monday as one piece of a broader partnership that will include the promotion of JD.com products on Google’s shopping service.

This could help JD.com expand beyond its base in China and Southeast Asia and establish a meaningful presence in U.S. and European markets.

JD.com’s U.S.-listed shares rose 1.2 percent to $44.10 on the NASDAQ on Monday.

Company officials said the agreement initially would not involve any major new Google initiatives in China, where the company’s main services are blocked over its refusal to censor search results in line with local laws.

JD.com’s investors include Chinese social media powerhouse Tencent Holdings, the arch-rival of Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba Group Holding, and Walmart.

The partnership not only lets Google bolster its retail ambitions in China but also allows it to further tighten its relationship with Walmart. Together, the two companies could challenge the dominance of Amazon and Alibaba in key markets around the world, analysts said.

In the past year, Google has been partnered with Walmart on multiple fronts. In August 2017, the two companies joined forces to offer hundreds of thousands of Walmart items on Google’s voice-controlled Google Assistant platform to counter the dominance of Amazon in the voice shopping market.

In March, Reuters reported a new program where Google was teaming up with retailers like Walmart, allowing them to list their products on Google Search, as well as on the Google Express shopping service to better compete with Amazon.

Google is also reportedly pursuing picking up a stake in India’s Flipkart, where Walmart picked up a 77 percent stake for $16 billion.

Google declined to comment on the rumored Flipkart deal.

Stepping Up Investments in ASIA

Google is stepping up its investments across Asia, where a rapidly growing middle class and a lack of infrastructure in retail, finance and other areas have made it a battleground for U.S. and Chinese internet heavyweights. Google recently took a stake in Indonesian ride-hailing firm Go-Jek.

The JD.com investment is being made by the operating unit of Google rather than one of parent company Alphabet’s investment vehicles.

Google will get 27.1 million newly issued JD.com Class A ordinary shares as part of the deal. This will give them less than a 1 percent stake in JD, a spokesman for JD said.

For JD.com, the Google deal shows its determination to build a set of global alliances as it seeks to counter Alibaba, which has been more focused on forging domestic retail tie-ups.

Japan’s SoftBank Group, which is making big internet investments around the globe, is a major investor in Alibaba.

Morningstar analyst Chelsey Tam said the investment will help JD.com expand into developed markets such as the United States and Europe, where it has lesser exposure compared to Google.

“This partnership with Google opens up a broad range of possibilities to offer a superior retail experience to consumers throughout the world,” said Jianwen Liao, JD.com’s chief strategy officer, in a statement.

Company officials said the deal would marry Google’s market reach and strength in analytics with JD.com’s expertise in logistics and inventory management.

The investment may give Google access to more consumer data, which can be used to boost usage of Google Shopping, said Morningstar analyst Ali Mogharabi.

Apple Aims to Solve Problems Locating 911 Calls for Help

Apple is trying to drag the U.S.’s antiquated system for handling 911 calls into the 21st century.

 

If it lives up to Apple’s promise, the next iPhone operating system coming out in September will automatically deliver quicker and more reliable information pinpointing the location of 911 calls to about 6,300 emergency response centers in the U.S.

 

Apple is trying to solve a problem caused by the technological mismatch between a system built for landlines 50 years ago and today’s increasingly sophisticated smartphones that make most emergency calls in the U.S.

 

The analog system often struggles to decipher the precise location of calls coming from digital devices, resulting in emergency responders sometimes being sent a mile or more from people pleading for help.

 

Time Machine Camera Means Never Missing the Moment

It’s happened to many of us. You fumble for your camera to record a precious moment but you’re a little too late. A delayed touch of the button, an opportunity missed forever. But now entrepreneurs in the Netherlands are hoping to change that dynamic with a new camera that can capture events even before you hit the record button. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

Theranos CEO: Wunderkind to Federal Indictment

Federal prosecutors have indicted Elizabeth Holmes on criminal fraud charges for allegedly defrauding investors, doctors and the public as the head of the once-heralded blood-testing startup Theranos. Federal prosecutors also brought charges against the company’s former second-in-command.

Holmes, who was once considered a wunderkind of Silicon Valley, and her former Chief Operating Officer Ramesh Balwani, are charged with two counts conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California said late Friday. If convicted, they could face prison sentences that would keep them behind bars for the rest of their lives, and total fines of $2.75 million each.

Technology a fraud

Prosecutors allege that Holmes and Balwani deliberately misled investors, policymakers and the public about the accuracy of Theranos’ blood-testing technologies. Holmes, 34, founded Theranos in Palo Alto, California, in 2003, pitching its technology as a cheaper way to run dozens of blood tests. Once considered the nation’s youngest female billionaire, Holmes said she was inspired to start the company in response to her fear of needles.

But an investigation by The Wall Street Journal two years ago found that Theranos’ technology was a fraud, and that the company was using routine blood-testing equipment for the vast majority of its tests. The story raised concerns about the accuracy of Theranos’ blood testing technology, which put patients at risk of having conditions either misdiagnosed or ignored.

“CEO Elizabeth Holmes and COO Sunny Balwani not only defrauded investors, but also consumers who trusted and relied upon their allegedly-revolutionary blood-testing technology,” Acting U.S. Attorney Alex Tse said in a statement.

SEC charges

The Securities and Exchange Commission brought civil fraud charges against Holmes and Balwani three months ago. Holmes settled with the SEC, agreeing to pay $500,000 in fines and penalties. Balwani, 53, is fighting the charges.

As the charges were announced Friday, Theranos said Holmes would step down as CEO of the company and its general counsel, David Taylor, would become the company’s next CEO. Theranos laid off most of its staff earlier this year and is widely expected to file for bankruptcy. Holmes remains the company’s chairman.

The company did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Friday’s indictments.