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Hundreds of ‘Zombie Mink’ Resurfacing from Mass Graves

Denmark’s government said on Friday it wants to dig up mink that were culled to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after hundreds resurfaced from mass graves.Denmark ordered all farmed mink to be culled early this month after finding that 12 people had been infected by a mutated strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, which passed from humans to mink and back to humans.The decision led to 17 million animals being destroyed and to the resignation last week of Food and Agriculture Minister Morgens Jensen, after it was determined that the order was illegal.Dead mink were tipped into trenches at a military area in western Denmark and covered with 2 meters of soil. But hundreds have begun resurfacing, pushed out of the ground by what authorities say is gas from their decomposition. Newspapers have referred to them as the “zombie mink.”Jensen’s replacement, Rasmus Prehn, said on Friday he supported the idea of digging up the animals and incinerating them. He said he had asked the environmental protection agency to investigate whether it could be done, and parliament would be briefed on the issue on Monday.The macabre burial sites, guarded 24 hours a day to keep people and animals away, have drawn complaints from area residents about possible health risks.Authorities say there is no risk of the graves spreading the coronavirus, but locals worry about the risk of contaminating drinking water and a bathing lake less than 200 meters away.

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Family of Jailed Oil Exec Asks for Venezuelan Leader’s Mercy

The family of a Houston-based Citgo oil executive convicted and ordered to prison in Venezuela alongside five others appealed directly to President Nicolás Maduro on Friday for mercy.In an open letter, relatives of José Pereira, 63, wrote to Maduro that Pereira has a long list of health problems that need medical attention.They ask for Maduro to free him — and the other five — so they can return home to their families in the United States.”Our purpose for this letter is not to enter into legal tirades about the case,” the letter says. “We only want to implore to your humanitarian and compassionate side.”The letter came a day after the Thanksgiving Day verdict finding all six guilty of corruption charges. They’ve been held for three years in Venezuela.In a statement Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States unequivocally condemns the wrongful convictions of the Citgo 6,” and that “these six individuals should be immediately returned to the United States.”The so-called Citgo 6 are employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, which is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. They had been lured to Venezuela in November 2017 for a business meeting and were arrested.In addition to Pereira, the others convicted were Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, and Tomeu Vadell — all now U.S. citizens. The judge sentenced them to eight years, 10 months.They were also charged with financial crimes stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason.” They all pleaded innocence.Jose Pereira, a permanent U.S. resident, had been promoted to interim Citgo president shortly before the arrest. He received the longest sentence of 13 years.”We ask solemnly and respectfully that you intercede in our case,” they asked Maduro. “So we can achieve freedom for these six men and allow them to return home to their loved ones.”Relatives say the men were wrongly convicted, and the defense lawyers vowed to appeal verdicts.Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice announced the verdicts and prison sentences, but officials in Maduro’s government have not commented on the trial’s outcome.

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700 Gang Members in Central America Arrested in US-assisted Actions

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have brought criminal charges against more than 700 members of cross-border criminal organizations, primarily the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, in a U.S.-assisted effort, the U.S. Department of Justice said Friday.”The U.S. Department of Justice and our law enforcement partners in Central America are committed to continued collaboration in locating and arresting gang members and associates engaged in transnational crimes,” said U.S. Attorney General William Barr, according to the statement.The charges resulted from a one-week coordinated law enforcement action under Operation Regional Shield, a DOJ-led initiative to combat transnational organized crime that brings together authorities from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States.Tackling transnational human smuggling networks and gangs, including MS-13, is a priority for U.S. President Donald Trump.Prosecutors in El Salvador this week filed criminal charges against 1,152 members of organized crime groups in the country, primarily MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, the statement said.The national civil police captured 572 of the defendants on charges involving terrorism, murder, extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, human trafficking and human smuggling, among others.In Guatemala, authorities executed 80 search warrants, arrested 40 individuals and served 29 arrest warrants against people already in custody, all of whom are members of the 18th Street gang and MS-13, the DOJ said. Guatemalan authorities seized drugs and a firearm, and filed charges of extortion, illicit association, conspiracy to commit murder and extortive obstruction.In Honduras, the one-week joint operation resulted in the arrest of more than 75 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members and five police officers and the execution of more than 10 search warrants.  

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US Sanctions Chinese, Russian Firms Over Iran Dealings

The U.S. announced economic sanctions Friday on Chinese and Russian companies that Washington said had supported the development of Iran’s missile program.The four firms, accused of “transferring sensitive technology and items to Iran’s missile program,” will be subject to restrictions on U.S. government aid and on their exports for two years, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.The sanctions, imposed Wednesday, were against two China-based companies, Chengdu Best New Materials and Zibo Elim Trade, as well as Russia-based Nilco Group and Joint Stock Company Elecon.”We will continue to work to impede Iran’s missile development efforts and use our sanctions authorities to spotlight the foreign suppliers, such as these entities in the PRC (China) and Russia, that provide missile-related materials and technology to Iran,” Pompeo added.President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal established three years earlier under then-President Barack Obama.Trump has since reimposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic in what he calls a campaign of “maximum pressure.”The Trump administration has also since shown its determination to sanction any foreign country or company that does not comply with its Iran policies.

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Macron Calls Images of Police Beating Black Man Shameful for France 

President Emmanuel Macron said Friday that images showing Paris police beating up a Black music producer were shameful for France and that government would have to find a way to restore public confidence in the force.Prosecutors are investigating the violent arrest of Michel Zecler, who said he was also racially abused by the officers, after CCTV footage of the incident was released. The police watchdog is also investigating.Four police officers were being held for questioning as part of the investigation, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.The beating inside the entrance of a building was captured on closed circuit television and mobile phone footage, which has circulated widely online and has made headlines around Europe.”The images we have all seen of the aggression against Michel Zecler are unacceptable. They are shameful for all of us. France should never allow violence or brutality, no matter who it comes from. France should never let hate or racism prosper,” Macron said in a statement on his Facebook page.’Respect the law’He added that the police force should be exemplary.”Those whose job it is to apply the law should respect the law,” he said, adding that he has asked the government to urgently make proposals about how to restore confidence in the police.The beating of Zecler risks inflaming racial tension, with allegations of repeated police brutality against Black and ethnic communities at the forefront of many people’s minds after the death of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May added fuel to  the “Black Lives Matter” movement.Dominique Sopo, president of anti-racism group SOS Racisme, told Reuters Zecler had been the target of a “racist attack.””For police officers to act that way, they must have a tremendous feeling of impunity. This situation is a symptom of an impunity that has been going on for too long,” he said.Paris police already faced criticism this week after social media photos and videos showed officers hitting protesters as they cleared out an illegal migrants’ campsite in a central Paris square.Incident at studioThe music producer told reporters he was set upon by police at his studio in Paris’s 17th arrondissement on Saturday.He said he had been walking in the street without a face mask — against French COVID-19 health protocols — and, upon seeing a police car, went into his nearby studio to avoid being fined. However, he said, the police followed him inside and began to assault and racially abuse him.Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told France 2 television on Thursday that the officers would be punished if the alleged wrongdoing was confirmed.Zecler’s arrest came amid fierce debate in France over legislation that would limit journalists’ ability to document French police officers at work.Around 3,500 people marched against the bill in the western city of Nantes, where police used tear gas and made several arrests. Many in the march also protested against police violence, some with their faces bandaged in support of  Zecler. A similar demonstration is planned in Paris on Saturday.The outrage generated by Floyd’s death in the U.S. in May has resonated in France, particularly in deprived city suburbs where police often clash with youths from ethnic minority backgrounds.Protests in Paris in June focused on unsolved cases of people dying during police operations, such as Adama Traore, who died in police detention near Paris in 2016.

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In Santa’s Mailbag, a Peek into Children’s Pandemic Worries

Jim, from Taiwan, slipped a face mask inside the greeting card he sent to Santa and marked “I (heart) u.” Alina, 5, asked in her Santa letter written with an adult’s help that he please use the front door when he drops in, because the back door is reserved for Grandma and Grandpa to minimize their risk of contamination.  And spilling out her heavy little heart to “Dear Father Christmas,” 10-year-old Lola wrote that she is wishing “that my aunt never has cancer again and that this virus no longer exists.”  “My mother is a care-giver and sometimes I am scared for her,” Lola explained, signing off her handwritten letter with, “Take care of yourself Father Christmas, and of the Elves.”  The emotional toll wrought by the pandemic is jumping off pages in the deluge of “Dear Santa” letters now pouring into a post office in southwest France that sorts and responds to his mail from around the world.  
 
Arriving by the tens of thousands, the letters, notes and cards — some mere scribbles, other elaborate labors of love in colored pens — are revealing windows into the tender minds of their young authors, and of adult Santa fans also asking for respite and happiness, at the tail end of a year of sickness and tumult.  Like this letter from young Zoe, who limited her requests to a music player and amusement park tickets because “this year has been very different from others because of COVID-19.”  “That’s why I am not asking you for many thing(s) to avoid infection,” Zoe wrote, signing off with “Merci!” and a heart.  In theory, and often in practice, any letter addressed “Pere Noel” — French for Father Christmas — and slipped into any post box around the world is likely to wend its way to the sorting office in France’s Bordeaux region that has been handling his mail since 1962. Toiling out of sight among vineyards, his secretariat of workers (who call themselves “elves”) spends the months of November and December slicing open envelopes decorated with hearts, stickers and colors, and spreading Santa magic by responding on his behalf.  From the first letters opened at the secretariat from Nov. 12, it quickly became apparent how the pandemic is weighing on children, says the chief elf, Jamila Hajji. Along with the usual pleas for toys and gadgets were also requests for vaccines, for visits from grandparents, for life to return to the way it was. One letter in three mentions the pandemic in some way, Hajji says.  “The kids have been very affected by COVID, more than we think. They are very worried. And what they want most of all, apart from presents, is really to be able to have a normal life, the end of COVID, a vaccine,” she says.  “The letters to Father Christmas are a sort of release for them. All this year, they have been in lockdowns, they have been deprived of school, deprived of their grandpas and grandmas. Their parents have been occupied by the health crisis and whatnot. So we, of course, can tell that the children are putting into words everything they have felt during this period.”  “We are like elf therapists,” she adds.  Replying to 12,000 letters per day, the team of 60 elves sets aside some that move them or catch the eye. Lola’s is among those that have stood out so far, with its heartfelt confession to Santa that “this year more than the others, I need magic and to believe in you.” The elves say their sense is that children are confiding worries that they may not have shared with parents.  Emma Barron, a psychiatrist specializing in the mental health of children and adolescents at the Robert Debré pediatric hospital in Paris, says landmark dates, including birthdays and holidays like Christmas, provide structure in childhood. Amid the pandemic’s uncertainty, the Dec. 25 anchor of Christmas is particularly important to kids this year.  “Children are quite surprising in that they can adapt to many things,” Barron says. “But rhythms, rituals and things like that are an integral part of children’s mental stability.”  As the letters flood in, it’s also clear that this goes beyond childhood. Santa is proving a beacon to adults, too, with some writing to him for the first time since they were kids.  One asked for “a pandemic of love.” A 77-year-old lamented that “lockdown is no fun! I live alone.” A grandparent asked Santa to “say ‘Hi’ to my two grandkids that I won’t be able to see this year because of the health situation.”  “Your mission will be hard this year,” wrote Anne-Marie, another adult suppliant. “You will need to sprinkle stars across the entire world, to calm everyone and revive our childhood souls, so we can dream, at last, and let go.”

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Navalny Urges EU to Target Putin’s Oligarch Backers

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny urged the EU on Friday to put targeted economic sanctions on the oligarchs surrounding President Vladimir Putin.”There is no sense in sanctioning colonels or generals or some people who are definitely not travelling a lot,” Navalny told MEPs by videolink.Addressing the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Navalny, who is recovering in Germany after a poisoning allegedly ordered by the Kremlin, argued for a new strategy.He said the Russian officials and military officers who are traditionally targeted “definitely do not have a lot of estate or bank accounts in Europe”.Instead, he argued, Brussels should go after what he said was Putin’s true inner circle of wealthy moguls with yachts and investments in the EU.Western government have concluded that Navalny was poisoned by Novichok, a military-grade poison that would be hard for non-state assassins to procure.He is recovering after treatment in a Berlin hospital, but his case has increased tensions between Moscow and European capitals, especially Berlin.The EU has imposed entry bans and bank account freezes on six people suspected of being responsible, including the head of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency.But Navalny said it was a mistake to look for a political motive in Moscow’s actions, arguing that the Moscow elite is simply interested in money.”The Russian state must be treated like a bunch of criminals who have temporarily seized power,” he said, urging Europe to support the Russian people.He warned Brussels to reject the result of next year’s Russian parliamentary elections which he said would certainly be rigged.

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Iranian Diplomat on Trial in Belgium, Charged with Plotting Attack

An Iranian diplomat and three other Iranian citizens went on trial in Belgium Friday for allegedly plotting to bomb a 2018 rally of the Paris-based National Council Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an opposition group in exile.Belgian prosecutors charged Vienna-based diplomat Assadolah Assadi and the other Iranians for the alleged plot against the gathering, where the keynote speaker was U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.Assadi was arrested in Germany while on holiday and handed over to Belgium.He refused to appear in court the first day of the trial in Antwerp, claiming diplomatic immunity through his lawyer.”My client asked me to represent him today, he let me know he has the fullest respect for these judges but as he considers that he should benefit from immunity, they are not allowed to judge him,” his lawyer, Dimitri de Beco, told reporters outside the court.Assadi was the third-highest ranking official at Iran’s embassy in Vienna and, according to French officials, he was in charge of intelligence in southern Europe.Tehran has repeatedly denied the charges, saying the allegations are a “false flag” stunt by the NCRI, which Iran considers a terrorist group.This is the first time a European Union country is adjudicating a case on terrorism charges involving an Iranian government official.

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Venezuela Judge Convicts 6 American Oil Execs, Orders Prison

Six American oil executives held for three years in Venezuela were found guilty of corruption charges by a judge Thursday and immediately sentenced to prison, defense lawyers said, dashing hopes of a quick release that would send them home to their families in the United States.Some relatives had been bracing for the disheartening outcome, which came on the evening of Thanksgiving Day.Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother to two of the men, said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” No evidence in the case supports a guilty conviction, he said.”We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,” Zambrano said. “We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.”Attorney María Alejandra Poleo, who helped represent three of the men, said the case was “void of evidence.” “Of course, the defense will appeal the decision,” she said.The so-called Citgo 6 are employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, which is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. They had been lured to Venezuela three years ago for a business meeting and were arrested on corruption charges.Their arrest launched a purge by President Nicolás Maduro’s government of PDVSA and at a time when relations between Caracas and Washington were crumbling as Venezuela plummeted into economic and social crisis.One gets 13-year sentenceFive of the men were sentenced to prison terms of 8 years and 10 months, while one of them received a 13-year sentence. Defense attorney Jesus Loreto said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.Venezuelan officials did not immediately comment.One of the men, Tomeu Vadel, has said in a letter written in a Caracas jail and provided exclusively to The Associated Press before the verdict that he had hopes for a fair trial so he could walk free with his name cleared and go home to his family in the United States.Despite his circumstances, Vadell held out hope.”During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable,” Vadell said in the four-page hand-written letter. “It proves that I am innocent.””I’m now reaching an intersection where if justice is done, I will be able to rebuild my life and try to compensate my family for all the lost moments,” he added. “The light is intense — the hope is great — give me freedom.”Videll said it was especially painful to be separated during the Thanksgiving season from his wife, three adult children and a newborn grandson he has never held.”Before living this tragedy, these celebrations were very special times for our family,” Vadell wrote, saying he embraced the traditional American holiday after moving in 1999 from Caracas to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a job with Citgo. “Now, they bring me a lot of sadness.”It’s the first time Vadell, or any of the so-called Citgo 6, had spoken publicly since being arrested and charged with in a purported big corruption scheme. He has been held at a feared Caracas jail called El Helicoide.The others convicted are Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, all now U.S. citizens. Jose Pereira, a permanent resident, received the longest sentence.All pleaded innocenceThey were also charged with embezzlement stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason.”They all pleaded innocence.The men were summoned to the headquarters of PDVSA for what they were told was a budget meeting on Nov. 21, 2017. A corporate jet shuttled them to Caracas and they were told they would be home for Thanksgiving. Instead, military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and hauled them off to jail.Their trial started four months ago and closing arguments took place Thursday. The judge immediately announced her verdict.The proceeding played out one day a week in a downtown Caracas court. Due to the pandemic, sessions were held in front of a bank of dormant elevators in a hallway, apparently to take advantage of air flowing through open windows.News media and rights groups were denied access to the hearings. There was no response to a letter addressed to Judge Lorena Cornielles seeking permission for The Associated Press to observe.The office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said prior to the verdict in a statement to AP that investigators found “serious evidence” that corroborated financial crimes potentially damaging to the state-run company.”The Citgo case has developed normally during all the stages established by the Venezuelan criminal process,” the statement said.Loreto said his client appeared to have been caught up in a “geopolitical conflict” of which he was not a part. He said Vadell’s name never appeared on any of the documents prosecutors read into evidence.”There’s nothing that refers to Tomeu in any way — directly or indirectly,” the lawyer said. “This is the story of a good guy being held against his will for all the wrong reasons.”Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has negotiated the release of other Americans held by hostile governments, traveled to Caracas in July and met with Maduro.He didn’t win their freedom, but days later two of them — Cárdenas and Toledo — were freed from jail and put in house detention. Two weeks later, the long-delayed trial began.Richardson told AP that conversations with the Venezuelan government continue despite his meeting with Maduro being “a little stormy.” He said he he believes there is an opening tied to President-elect Joe Biden and a desire by Maduro to improve relations with Washington.”I think the Venezuelans have been straight with me, but more progress needs to be made,” Richardson said before the verdict. “My hope is to have something positive by Christmas.”It is not clear what approach Biden will take toward Maduro. Trump aggressively pressed to remove Maduro through sweeping financial sanctions and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest.‘The light of hope’Vadell’s letter steered clear of politics. He didn’t mention Maduro or speak about his jailers, though he did express concern about the “consequences of repercussions” of speaking out.With encouragement from his family, Vadell broke his silence, taking a risk relatives said was necessary.”I believe it’s more important that the light of hope illuminates us,” Vadell wrote. “May the light of hope put an end to the sadness of my family.”The five other men did not respond to invitations AP made through their lawyers to comment.Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles that her father isn’t the kind of person who seeks attention. Rather, he prefers to focus on work and his family.During his 35-year career with PDVSA and Citgo, Vadell ended up running a refinery in Lake Charles and then became vice president of refining. The letter attempts to expose this side of his life, she said.”I think he was willing to take some risks and open some hearts to allow him to come home,” she said. “I think he’s still wondering ‘What happened?’ He went to a work meeting and never came home.”

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