Impressive List of Experts Urge China to Free Canadians

More than 100 academics and former diplomats are calling on China to release two Canadians who have been detained in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive in Canada.

The letter by a wide array of China experts from around the world is addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It says the arrests of the two Canadians sends a worrisome signal to those who work in policy and research in China.

China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. authorities.

Meng is the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder. The U.S. wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei’s business dealings in Iran.

Bridge builders

The letter, released Monday, notes Kovrig is a former diplomat who was working as an expert on Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank. It notes that Spavor devoted his time to building relationships between North Korea and China, Canada and United States.

It praises Kovrig and Spavor as bridge-builders between China and the world and said their arrests make writers “more cautious” about traveling to China.

“Meetings and exchanges are the foundation of serious research and diplomacy around the world, including for Chinese scholars and diplomats,” the letter says. “Kovrig and Spavor’s detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China.”

The letter said the arrests will lead to “less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result.”

Impressive list of experts

More than 20 diplomats from seven countries and more than 100 scholars and academics from 19 countries signed.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, signed the letter and noted it comes as Canada is working to rally international support for the case.

“It will be noticed in Beijing and I hope that it will make clear for them that the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor are not only a China-Canada problem but it’s also having an impact on the image of and reputation of China,” Saint-Jacques said. “It’s an impressive list.”

The signatories include former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong. Two former U.S. ambassadors to China, Gary Locke and Winston Lord, also signed.

David Mulroney, another former Canadian ambassador to China, said the letter is significant because it shows the international breadth of support for the two men.

“This isn’t simply a Canada-China dispute,” Mulroney said. “A lot of serious people, including many who have spent years working in China, are worried about how it is closing itself off, and punishing those who seek to understand and interpret it for others.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he encourages friends and allies around the world to point out that all countries should stand up for the rule of law.

Rio to Test Facial-Recognition Cameras During Carnival

Rio de Janeiro plans to test a facial-recognition system during its famed Carnival as part of the city’s campaign to fight crime, the head of the regional police force said.

Rogerio Figueiredo, the new head of Rio de Janeiro’s state police, said in an interview published Monday by the O Globo newspaper that cameras deployed with the technology will scan both faces and car license plates.

It will be operational in Rio’s tourist hotspot of Copacabana in the beginning of March, when this year’s Carnival takes place.

“If (the cameras) identify an individual under an arrest warrant, or if a stolen vehicle drives through the area, an alert will be sent to the closest police car,” Figueiredo explained.

“It’s a fantastic tool. It’s time that the police modernize.”

Street crime common

Rio, which hosted the 2016 Olympic Games, has long suffered from street crime, with exchanges of gunfire common between drug-dealing gangs and police.

Last year’s Carnival was marred by numerous crimes in tourist areas, especially close to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

Television images showed groups of youths carrying out mass robberies by running into crowds and taking possessions by force.

Shortly after that Carnival, former president Michel Temer signed a decree controversially putting Rio’s security forces under military control until the end of the year.

Hard line on crime

With new anti-crime president Jair Bolsonaro installed Jan. 1 and ally Wilson Witzel taking over as Rio’s governor, local authorities are poised to take a hard line on crime.

Witzel, for instance, has evoked using police snipers to kill armed suspects, even if they are not directly threatening anyone with their weapon.

Reports say the governor is also looking to acquire Israeli surveillance drones that are capable of firing on suspected drug gang members. 

10 Dead as Ships Catch Fire Off Crimea 

At least 10 people are dead after two Tanzanian-flagged ships caught fire Monday in the Kerch Strait off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea. 

Russian authorities said at least 12 people were rescued, but the rest are missing. 

The ships, the Kandy and the Maestro, had crews that were nationals from India and Turkey. Together, the two ships carried 31 crew members. 

Russia’s transport ministry said a rescue operation was under way to find sailors who jumped overboard to escape the blaze, which ignited when fuel was being transferred from one ship to another.

Ships in ‘neutral water’

The crew members were sailing in “neutral waters” in the Black Sea when the incident occurred, authorities said.

The Kerch Strait is a point of high tension between Russia and Ukraine. 

In November, Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy ships in the strait as they tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Azov Sea. Russia continues to hold 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in the incident. They are accused of illegally crossing into Russian territory.

Ukraine has denied the accusation.

Venezuela Claims to Foil Revolt by National Guardsmen

Venezuelan security forces have arrested 27 National Guardsmen, after they allegedly revolted against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, the Defense Ministry said.

The ministry said “a small group” of National Guard members had taken four hostages and stolen weapons from an outpost in Caracas’ Cotiza neighborhood during a pre-dawn insurgency. 

Venezuelan officials said the 27 were arrested and more could follow as the investigation unfolds.  

All weapons recovered

The military said it had recovered all the weapons and captured those involved in what it described as “treasonous” acts motivated by “obscure interests tied to the far right.”

It said the revolt began at around 2:50 a.m. local time when the men took over a police station in western Caracas. They then moved across the capital in two military trucks to the poor neighborhood of Petare, where they stole a cache of weapons from another outpost. 

They were arrested a short time later at a national guard outpost 3 kilometers from the presidential palace.

A few hours earlier, a group of guardsmen also reportedly posted videos on social media saying they won’t recognize the Maduro government and urged him to leave office. They asked those seeing the video to help them overthrow the government. 

Protesters show support

The failed revolt sparked protests in the poor neighborhoods of the capital as the news spread.  At daybreak in Cotiza, a group of young men built a barricade across the street with a burning car, heavy sewer grates and a large chunk of concrete.  “Freedom! Freedom!” they chanted. “Maduro has to go!” 

Maduro’s administration has come under increasing domestic and international pressure as he begins a second term that that the opposition-led congress considers illegitimate. 

Greek Parliament Begins Debate on Deal with Macedonia

Greece’s parliament began to debate Monday a deal that would normalize Greek relations with Macedonia, a day after violent protests against the accord broke out in Athens.

Parliamentary officials have tentatively scheduled a vote for Thursday on the deal, which calls for Macedonia to change its name and for Greece to drop its objections to the Balkan country joining NATO and the European Union.

The deal was debated Monday in the Greek parliament’s committee on defense and foreign policy, while the house’s plenary session will take up debate Wednesday.

Greeks have been divided over the accord, in which Macedonia will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece has long protested the name Macedonia, adopted by its northern neighbor after it split from Yugoslavia. Some Greeks say the new name still represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage, because Macedonia is also the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Protests in Athens against the agreement turned violent Sunday, with demonstrators throwing rocks, firebombs and other items at police, who responded with numerous volleys of tear gas. At least 25 officers and dozens of people were injured in the clashes, officials said.

A nationwide poll in Greece this month found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal, AP reported.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament Wednesday.

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end the 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. EU countries have also strongly backed the deal.

Russia: 2 Ships Catch Fire in Black Sea, 10 Sailors Dead

Two Tanzanian-flagged commercial vessels caught fire in the Black Sea, leaving at least 10 sailors dead, Russian officials said Monday. Seven sailors were missing.

The Federal Agency for the Sea and River Transport said the fire erupted while fuel was being pumped from one tanker to another. The blaze also spread from one ship to the other, prompting the crews to jump overboard, according to Russian news agencies.

The news agencies quoted the federal maritime agency as saying the two vessels had 31 crew members combined who are citizens of Turkey and India.

Salvage teams have rescued 14 crew members and recovered 10 bodies, the maritime agency said, adding that a search for the seven missing sailors is underway.

The Russian navy has joined the rescue operation, deploying two of its ships.

The fire erupted while the two vessels, the Maestro and the Candy, were anchored near the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Death Toll in Mexico Pipeline Fire Climbs to 89

The death toll in a massive fire at an illegally tapped pipeline in Mexico rose to 89 Monday as more of the injured died at hospitals.

Health Secretary Jorge Alcocer said 51 victims severely burned in the fire were still in hospitals, two of them in Galveston, Texas.

The victims were gathering gasoline from an illegal pipeline tap in the central state of Hidalgo on Friday when the gas ignited, littering an alfalfa field with charred bodies.

The government reported Monday that an astonishing 14,894 such illegal taps had been found in 2018, an average of about 41 per day nationwide.

Hidalgo was the state with the highest number of such taps, with 2,121. The fire occurred in the small farming town of Tlahuelilpan, where 38 such taps were found in 2017 and 23 in 2018.

The fire occurred on a 14-inch underground steel pipeline that had been drilled, tapped and patched before.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Mexico’s fuel ducts are antiquated and decaying.

“These pipelines haven’t been changed in more than 30 years, with thousands of illegal taps, patched-up pipelines without the capacity to carry fuel,” he said Monday. “That is why it was decided to expand delivery with tanker trucks.”

He said the government has signed contracts to buy 571 gas tanker trucks, which would be operated by the army. Civilian drivers have been recruited, but are now living at army bases, waiting for the trucks to arrive.

Fuel shortages

Lopez Obrador said he hopes to pay for some of the trucks by selling off the fleet of presidential and bodyguard vehicles which he has refused to use, as part of his government austerity plan.

Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries while shutting off pipelines where taps were detected.

The pipeline shutdowns have resulted in fuel shortages and long lines at gas stations, something that might have swelled the number looking to gather illegal gas in the field where the fire broke out.

Tlahuelilpan resident Arely Calva Martinez said her brother, Marco Alfredo Calva, had been in the field Friday and still hasn’t been found. About 57 of the charred bodies were so badly burned they couldn’t be recognized.

Calva Martinez said Marco, a teacher, needed gas to drive 1-1/2 hours each day to his job as a teacher.

“They didn’t have gas because the gas stations weren’t selling any, and he needed to get to work,” said Calva Martinez. “I believe that if the gas stations had been selling gas, a lot of those people wouldn’t have been there,” she said of the victims.

France Fines Google $57M for Data Privacy Violation

France’s data watchdog fined Google nearly $57 million on Monday, saying the tech giant failed to provide users with transparent information on its data consumer policies and how their personal information was used to display advertising targeting them.

The French agency CNIL said U.S.-based Google made it too difficult for internet users to understand and manage their personal preferences online.

“The information provided is not sufficiently clear,” the regulatory agency said, “for the user to understand the legal basis for targeted advertising is consent, and not Google’s legitimate business interests.”

It was the first ruling using the European Union’s strict new General Data Protection Regulation since it was implemented last year, a sweeping set of rules that has set a global standard forcing large American technology firms to examine their practices or risk huge fines.

Google said it was studying the ruling to determine its next steps.

“People expect high standards of transparency and control from us,” Google said. “We’re deeply committed to meeting those expectations and the consent requirements” of the new regulations.


Fear, Zeal Over More Guns in Violence-Plagued Brazil

Fearing for his safety amid rising crime in Latin America’s largest nation, Paulo Alberto joined a gun club three years ago and learned to shoot. But he says Brazil’s tight carry laws that mean he can’t take his gun anywhere but to the club limit his ability to protect himself outside his home.

“The current laws are very strict and end up helping out the thugs,” Alberto said between rounds at the Calibre 12 gun club in this city across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro. “We need laws to make it easier to both possess and carry guns.”

It’s a view held by many, including Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro, a former army captain who waves to supporters with his hands in the shape of pistols, took a first step toward dramatically increasing the number of guns in Brazil, the nation that leads the world in total homicides.

By decree, Bolsonaro eliminated the requirement that aspiring gun owners justify to federal police officials why they need a firearm, creating instead a wide range of qualifying circumstances. The categories are so broad — citizens living in rural areas, those in urban areas with high levels of homicide, business owners, gun collectors and hunters — that just about any citizen age 25 or older wanting a firearm could effectively get one.

Prospective gun owners must still meet requirements that include not having a criminal record, taking a psychological exam and getting training from a gun club. And the restriction most despised by gun proponents — the right of civilians to carry — remains intact, at least for now.

During Tuesday’s announcement, Bolsonaro said that more reforms would be “pursued legislatively,” referring to carry laws.

Such changes energize supporters and are a potential boon for major gun makers. On Bolsonaro’s first day in office earlier this month, stocks of gun manufacturer Forjas Taurus jumped 30 percent.

For civil rights groups, security experts and many in Brazil’s violence-wracked slums the potential changes are terrifying.

Myriad studies in Brazil and the United States show that more guns lead to higher homicide rates. That is a scary prospect in a country that in 2017 broke its own record for murders, with nearly 64,000 killed — 70 percent by firearms — the most recent figures available.

“We are talking about life and death,” said Ilona Szabo, co-founder of Igarape, a think tank that focuses on public security. “This is not something to play with in the most murderous country in the world.”

Szabo and other security experts argue that instead of expanding access to guns, current guns laws should be more rigorously enforced.

In a scathing editorial titled “Reckless Decree,” the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo said there was already little oversight of gun owners and noted that a major investigation by Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature in 2011 found that the vast majority of illegally trafficked guns started out legal.

“There is no guarantee that facilitating [gun] possession will be paired with any effective control,” it said.

Bolsonaro’s decree made no mention of beefing up the current reporting system. In contrast, it extended the license renewal period from five to 10 years. In Congress, the pro-gun lobby known as the “bullet caucus” has made clear its focus is deregulation, not adding more administrative hoops.

Since major legislation to tighten gun laws was passed in 2003, the pro-gun lobby has put forward several bills to expand access and availability of firearms. These include sanctioning the carrying of concealed weapons, increasing the number of guns an individual can own and how much ammunition they can buy.

Those bills have been defeated by the previous four administrations led by the left-leaning Workers’ Party. But political analysts say Bolsonaro’s strong electoral victory in October combined with deep frustration over violence means they now have a good chance of passing.

Still, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Brazilians are not convinced that more guns are a good idea.

A Datafolha poll published at the end of last year found that 61 percent of those surveyed believe firearms should be prohibited and pose a threat to others. The poll, which surveyed 2,077 people, had a margin of error of 2 percent.

Similar to arguments made by the National Rifle Association in the U.S., supporters of loosened gun laws frequently argue that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The debate comes with a disconcerting backdrop: Nobody knows how many guns are already in circulation in Brazil, a nation of 210 million people bordered by more than half a dozen countries.

In the wake of the 2003 legislation to restrict firearm possession, studies estimated the number of guns at around 17.5 million, both legally and illegally owned.

Since then, however, security experts say there have been no definitive studies, in part because the tracking of guns has never been properly funded or implemented.

Proponents of looser regulation contend that, given the failure of successive governments to ensure security, citizens have a right to protect themselves by being armed.

But an incident involving Bolsonaro himself would seem to illustrate how carrying a gun doesn’t necessarily mean protection. In 1995, the then congressman was confronted by two gunmen while riding his motorcycle in Barra da Tijuca, an affluent Rio neighborhood.

They stole Bolsonaro’s motorcycle and a Glock 380 pistol, which he was allowed to carry as a former member of the military.

“Even armed, I felt defenseless,” Bolsonaro told local newspapers at the time.

Despite the incident, Bolsonaro and other administration officials argue civilians need guns to protect themselves.

Sen. Major Olimpio, a member of Bolsonaro’s party, said earlier this month that Congress would move toward repealing parts of the 2003 disarmament legislation.

“It’s a big fallacy to say that guns will increase violence,” Olimpio told Globo News TV. “Illegal weapons are involved in crimes.”

Guns possessed illegally are at the center of many crimes in Brazil, particularly those involving drug-trafficking gangs, who often brandish automatic weapons in the poor neighborhoods they control. However, these weapons often start out as legally owned by police, military personnel or the security companies many rich people hire for safety.

Given the reality that many guns wind up in criminals’ hands through theft or corruption, opponents of more lax laws argue that more legal guns will only translate into more illegal guns and crime.

Among them is 32-year-old Camila Lima, who was hit by a stray bullet in the neck when she was 12 during a shootout between criminals and security guards in her Rio neighborhood that left her paralyzed.

She and her mother lobbied in favor of the 2003 legislation to tighten gun laws, and regret that the country is going in the other direction.

“If government officials want to arm the population, they should include a clause saying that they will be responsible for the victims,” Lima said. “I was shot, nobody took responsibility for that.”

Still, in a country where violence plays an outsized role in everyday life, some victims of gun violence believe the solution is arming up.

On Tuesday night, just hours after Bolsonaro issued his gun-law decree, 22-year-old Matheus Lessa was shot and killed while trying to protect his mother during a robbery in their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro.

At his son’s funeral on Thursday, Luciano Lessa lamented that the family had no way to protect itself.

“The criminals can walk around armed, so why not working people?” a distraught Lessa asked. “We have to wait for them to shoot us like they shot my son?”

Russian Media Watchdog Moves Against Facebook, Twitter

Russia’s communication watchdog, Roskomnadzor, opened “administrative proceedings” Monday against Facebook and Twitter for non-compliance with country’s data laws, Interfax news agency reported.

Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov is quoted as saying that U.S. social media giants have a month to comply or face legal proceedings.

According to Roskomnadzor, Facebook and Twitter have not explained how and when they would comply with legislation that requires all servers used to store Russians’ personal data to be located in Russia.

Russia has introduced stricter internet laws in the past five years, among other things requiring search engines to share encryption keys with Russian security services.

In April last year, thousands rallied in Moscow in support of internet freedom after Russian authorities attempted to block access to the popular messaging app Telegram.

Telegram had refused to give state intelligence services access to private conversations which are usually encrypted.