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Germany’s Merkel Stresses Importance of US-European Relations

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday stressed the importance of the transatlantic relationship, saying the United States will always be Europe’s most important partner. Speaking during a digital foreign relations conference, sponsored by her parliamentary coalition, Merkel said transatlantic cooperation is “back in business, if you want to put it that way,” referring to the election of U.S. President Joe Biden. Merkel conceded that relations with the Trump administration hadn’t been as good as they might have been. Relations between Merkel and President Donald Trump had been strained over issues such as Russia and funding for NATO. She added that “back in business” did not necessarily mean “business as usual,” as a lot has changed in recent years. But Merkel said it was clear to her during “difficult” years that “we can only find answers to common tasks and the questions of the future in closer cooperation.” Merkel said that while Germany had no interest in a world divided into camps as it was during the Cold War, it was good that the United States, Europe’s “most important ally,” stood alongside the continent in rivalries with China and Russia. The chancellor also said global issues such as trade and climate change cannot be solved without good relations with China as well.  Merkel said she also supported a bilateral trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. “We have trade agreements with so many of the world’s regions,” she said. “It would make a lot of sense to develop such a trade agreement here, similar to what we have done with Canada.” After 13 years in office, Merkel has announced she will not seek reelection in the national vote later this year. 
 

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Facebook Oversight Upholds Trump Ban Linked to Storming of US Capitol 

Facebook’s oversight board on Wednesday upheld the social media company’s decision to ban former U.S. President Donald Trump from posting comments to his Facebook and Instagram accounts, a measure imposed after he posted incendiary remarks as hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.The quasi-independent panel, however, left open the possibility that Trump could eventually return to the popular website, saying it “was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension.”   The oversight group gave Facebook executives six months to re-examine the “arbitrary penalty” it imposed the day after the insurrection, when Trump urged followers to confront lawmakers as they certified Joe Biden’s election victory. The review said Facebook executives should decide on another penalty that reflects the “gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.” Facebook management responded by saying it “will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate. In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.” Trump reacted angrily at the oversight panel’s decision, saying, “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before.” 
 
“The People of our Country will not stand for it!” he said. “These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”  
 
The 45th U.S. president contended that by banning his comments, “what Facebook, Twitter and Google have done is a total disgrace and embarrassment to Our Country.”   
 
Trump, now three-plus months out of office but contemplating another run for the presidency in 2024, unveiled Tuesday morning a new website, “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” to communicate with his supporters. It looked much like a Twitter feed, with posts written by Trump that could be shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.During his four years in the White House, Trump broke new ground with thousands of tweets on issues of the day, endorsements of Republican candidates he favored over those who had attacked him, and acerbic comments about opposition Democrats. A letter submitted to the oversight panel on Trump’s behalf asked the board to reconsider the Facebook suspension, contending it was “inconceivable” that either of his January 6 posts “can be viewed as a threat to public safety, or an incitement to violence.”  The letter also claimed all “genuine” Trump supporters at the Capitol on January 6 were law-abiding, and that “outside forces” were involved. However, more than 400 people inside the Capitol that day, including many wearing Trump-emblazoned hats and shirts and carrying pro-Trump flags and signs, have been arrested and charged with an array of criminal offenses. The oversight board found that Trump’s two posts in the midst of the chaos at the Capitol that left five people dead severely violated Facebook’s Community Standards and Instagram’s Community Guidelines. “We love you. You’re very special” in the first post, and “great patriots” and “remember this day forever,” in the second post violated Facebook’s rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence, the review panel said. The oversight group went on to say that “in maintaining an unfounded narrative of electoral fraud and persistent calls to action, Mr. Trump created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible. At the time of Mr. Trump’s posts, there was a clear, immediate risk of harm, and his words of support for those involved in the riots legitimized their violent actions.” “As president, Mr. Trump had a high level of influence,” the panel concluded. “The reach of his posts was large, with 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram. “Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the panel said. “However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.” In one of his posts during the insurrection, Trump said, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love in peace. Remember this day forever!” Facebook removed the post and decided the next day to extend Trump’s ban indefinitely, at least past Biden’s January 20 inauguration. “His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the U.S. and around the world,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a January 7 statement. “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.” The 20-member review panel was composed of legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists. A five-member panel prepared a decision, which had to be approved by a majority of the full board, and which Facebook was then required to implement unless the action could violate the law. The board says its mission is to “answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” The Facebook Oversight Board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel has been problematic content. The board announced its first decisions in January, supporting Facebook’s decision to remove content in one case, but overruling the company and ordering it to restore posts in four other cases. 

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Spain’s Bullrings Reopen and Reignite Fiery Debate

As its COVID-19 lockdown eases, Spain has resumed bullfights — and reignited a fiery political debate between right-wingers who defend the tradition and leftists who condemn it as animal cruelty. Jonathan Spier narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Barcelona.Camera:  Alfonso Beato
 

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French Journalist Kidnapped in Northern Mali Appears in Video

A journalist who disappeared last month in Mali’s northern city of Gao appeared in a video on Wednesday appealing to authorities to do everything they can to free him from Islamist militants holding him.
 
“I’m Olivier Dubois. I’m French. I’m a journalist. I was kidnapped in Gao on April 8 by the JNIM (al-Qaeda North Africa).
 
“I’m speaking to my family, my friends and the French authorities for them to do everything in their power to free me,” Dubois said in a 21-second video shared on social media.
 
French civilians have long been favored targets for kidnapping by criminal and Islamist groups in West Africa’s arid Sahel region, partly because of perceptions that the French government is prepared to pay ransoms to secure their release.
 
France has repeatedly denied paying ransoms for hostages.
 
“We confirm the disappearance in Mali of Mr. Olivier Dubois,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement, stopping short of describing it as a kidnapping.
 
The ministry said it was in contact with his family and carrying out technical checks on the authenticity of the video.
 
Malian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
 
Dubois is the first French national to be taken hostage by jihadist militants in Mali since French aid worker Sophie Petronin was freed in October last year. She had been abducted near Gao in late 2016.
 
Islamist militants have repeatedly declared French citizens in West Africa to be targets since a 2013 military intervention by France drove back al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized cities and towns in northern Mali a year earlier.
 
Scores of Islamist insurgents were released in a prisoner swap deal that liberated Petronin, a senior Malian politician and two Italians.
 
The head of Reporters Without Borders said on Twitter that the media freedom organization had been aware of Dubois’s disappearance two days after he did not return to his hotel in Gao after lunch.
 
Christophe Deloire said Dubois worked for France’s Le Point magazine and Liberation newspaper.
 
“In consultation with the news organizations that employed him, we decided not to announce that he had been taken hostage so as not to hinder a rapid possible outcome,” Deloire said. “We are asking Malian and French authorities to do everything possible to obtain his release.” 

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Italy Jury Deliberates Fate of 2 Americans in Police Slaying

A jury in Rome on Wednesday began deliberating the fates of two young American men who are charged with killing an Italian police officer near the hotel where they were staying while on summer vacation in 2019. Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, were indicated on charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. Judge Marina Finiti indicated the verdicts could come later Wednesday or on Thursday. Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Bridgadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife he brought with him on his trip to Europe from California and that Natale-Hjorth helped him hide the knife in their hotel room. The July 26, 2019 slaying of the officer from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero. The two Californians on trial were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consists of presiding judge Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors. “I’m stressed,” Elder said to one of his lawyers. At another point during Wednesday’s brief court hearing, Elder took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it. Cerciello Rega had recently returned from a honeymoon when he was assigned along with a plainclothes police partner, officer Andrea Varriale, to follow up on a reported extortion attempt. Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district didn’t pan out. Natale-Hjorth and Elder testified they had paid for the cocaine but didn’t receive it. Both defendants contended they acted in self-defense. During the trial, which began on Feb. 26, 2020, the Americans told the court they thought that Cerciello Rega and Varriale were thugs or mobsters out to assault them on a dark, deserted street. The officers wore casual summer clothes and not uniforms, and the defendants insisted the officers never showed police badges. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even without materially doing the slaying. Varriale, who suffered a back injury in a scuffle with Natale-Hjorth while his partner was grappling with Elder, testified that the officers did identify themselves as Carabinieri. Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta has asked the court to convict both defendants and to mete out Italy’s stiffest punishment, life imprisonment. At the time of the slaying, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. Former classmates from the San Francisco Bay area, the two had met up in Rome for what was supposed to be couple of days of sightseeing and nights out. 

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Coronavirus Vaccines, Combatting Climate Change on G-7 Agenda

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies turn their attention to issues of global interest including coronavirus vaccines, climate change and education for girls on Wednesday as they close three days of talks in London. “I think COVAX and the ability to fund it, get vaccines to the most vulnerable countries, what we do about the surplus domestic supply, all of those issues again, really good opportunity with the G-7, together with our Indo-Pacific partners, to talk all of that through and come up with positive answers,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Tuesday. With Britain hosting the ministerial talks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose office highlighted the importance of global access to COVID-19 vaccines. “The Prime Minister and Secretary Blinken agreed that the global roll out of vaccines will be key to defeating the coronavirus pandemic. They underlined the importance of G-7 work in this area, including efforts to increase international manufacturing capability,” a Downing Street spokesman said.Trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the G7 foreign ministers meeting in London, May 5, 2021.Tuesday’s G-7 meetings included a focus on China. A senior U.S. State Department official told reporters there was broad agreement among the ministers, “both the fact that we all want China to be an integral member of the international order, but to do that, it has to play by the rules of that international order.” The official cited concern about China’s human rights record and its “threatening and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and other areas around its border.” Blinken also said Tuesday the G-7 nations want to end the 10-year civil war in Syria. “My @G7 counterparts and I reaffirmed our commitment to a political resolution for ending the conflict in Syria and support to the reauthorization of the U.N. cross-border aid mechanism,” Blinken tweeted.My @G7 counterparts and I reaffirmed our commitment to a political resolution for ending the conflict in Syria and support to the reauthorization of the UN cross-border aid mechanism. We’ll continue working to advance all aspects of UNSCR 2254 and end the suffering of Syrians.— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 4, 2021He said the group would work to advance all parts of a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for a cease-fire in Syria, along with a Syrian-led political process with a new constitution and elections. The G-7 ministerial talks are laying the foundation for a summit of leaders from those countries in June, also in Britain.       In addition to Britain and the United States, the G-7 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Australia, India, South Africa, South Korea and Brunei are also taking part in this week’s talks.          After the G-7 meetings, Blinken is scheduled to travel to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other senior government officials.          State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that Blinken will “reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.”

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UN Alarmed at Police Killings of Peaceful Protesters in Colombia

Police in the Colombian city of Cali reportedly opened fire on demonstrators who were protesting tax reforms. The U.N. human rights office said it is in the process of verifying the exact number of casualties and trying to determine how this incident could have happened.Human rights spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said it is important to get to the bottom of these events.Hurtado said her office has received reports about people being arbitrarily detained. Human rights defenders, she said, report being harassed and threatened by security forces.“We have seen videos of police dragging demonstrators, including injured demonstrators…” Hurtado said. “We have witnesses of excessive use of force by security officers — shootings, live ammunition being used, beating of demonstrators.”There has been no response from the Colombian government to the U.N. remarks. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, has alleged that illegal armed groups are infiltrating the protests to cause violence.The head of Colombia’s national police force, General Jorge Luis Varga, said 26 allegations of police brutality are under investigation. News reports cite police as saying their forces came under attack amid acts of looting and burning of buses.Strikes against a proposed tax reform bill have been ongoing since April 28. Demonstrators have continued their protests despite an announcement from the Colombian presidency on May 2 that it would remove the bill from consideration by Congress.Hurtado said there have been at least 14 deaths since the protests began, including one police officer. She said most of the protests have been peaceful and hopes they remain so during mass demonstrations called for Wednesday.“Given the extremely tense situation, with soldiers as well as police officers deployed to police the protest, we call for calm,” Hurtado said. “We remind the state authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights, including the right to life and security of person, and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”The human rights office said under international law, force should only be used if strictly necessary and in proportion to the threat posed. It said law enforcement officers should only use firearms as a measure of last resort against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

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Facebook Oversight Panel to Rule on Trump Ban

Facebook’s quasi-independent Oversight Board is set to announce Wednesday whether the social media company was correct to indefinitely prohibit former U.S. President Donald Trump from posting to his Facebook and Instagram accounts.The board is made up of 20 members, including legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists. A panel of five members prepares a decision, which must be approved by a majority of the full board, and which Facebook is then required to implement unless the action could violate the law.The board says its mission is to “answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.”Trump’s ban dates to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters that came as members of Congress were meeting to certify the results of the November presidential election.In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington.He made several posts during the attack continuing his false claims that the election was “stolen.” Facebook removed two of Trump’s posts and initially banned him from posting for 24 hours.“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long,” Trump posted about two hours before police and National Guard troops secured the Capitol. “Go home with love in peace. Remember this day forever!”Facebook decided the next day to extend Trump’s ban indefinitely, at least past the inauguration of President Joe Biden.“His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a January 7 statement.Twitter instituted a permanent ban against Trump, saying several of his posts “are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.”The Facebook Oversight Board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel is problematic content.The board announced its first decisions in January, supporting Facebook’s decision to remove content in one case, but overruling the company and ordering it to restore posts in four other cases.

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Colombian President Urges Dialogue Ahead of Planned Wednesday Marches

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Tuesday the government is ready for national dialogue after days of protests led to over 20 deaths and international concern about excessive use of force by police.The protests, set to continue on Wednesday, were originally called in opposition to the government’s now-canceled tax reform plan but have become a broad cry for action against poverty and what demonstrators and advocacy groups say is police violence.All Colombians should work to reject violence, protect the most vulnerable and support COVID-19 vaccination and economic reactivation, Duque said in a video.”I want to announce that we will create a space to listen to citizens and construct solutions oriented toward those goals, where our most profound patriotism, and not political differences, should intercede,” Duque said.Colombian President Ivan Duque holds a press conference with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Italian Filippo Grandi in Bogota on Feb. 8, 2021.Duque’s promise echoed the 2019 creation of a so-called national dialogue after days of anti-government protests.Civil society groups, especially major unions, have said the government has not lived up to those promises and has done little to change deep inequalities in the Andean country.Mass marches and a national strike are planned for Wednesday, where demonstrators will call for a basic income guarantee, the withdrawal of a government health reform proposal and the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police.Duque responded to allegations of police overreach and rejected attacks on officers.”To those who work for the security of Colombians: all our support, and at the same time, all our expectation.”The national police force has said it will investigate more than two dozen allegations of brutality, while the defense minister has accused illegal armed groups of infiltrating the protests to cause violence.The western city of Cali has become the focus of protests since they began almost a week ago and is the site of 11 of the 19 deaths confirmed by the Andean country’s human rights ombudsman as of Monday. Local authorities said five more people were killed during protests there Monday night.Some 87 people have been reported missing nationally since the protests started, according to the ombudsman.Intermittent road blockades are delaying shipments out of the Pacific port city of Buenaventura, according to local authorities.The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged calm, saying it was “deeply alarmed” by reports of police shootings.The European Union also called for security forces to avoid a heavy-handed response.Protests have so far led to the withdrawal of the original tax reform and the resignation of Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla. The government said the reform, which originally levied sales tax on public services and some food, would shore up the economy.Duque has said his government will draw up another proposal after consultations with lawmakers, civil society and businesses.New Finance Minister Jose Manuel Restrepo will need to convince Colombians, many of whom have seen their incomes battered by coronavirus lockdowns, that reform is vital, former Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told the Reuters Global Markets Forum on Tuesday.Restrepo “has a huge challenge ahead” Cardenas said.Duque has offered military assistance to protect infrastructure and guarantee access to essential services, though mayors of cities including Bogota and Medellin said it was unnecessary.Duque on Tuesday canceled his nightly television show for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, and the protests forced the South American Football Confederation to move two Copa Libertadores games to Paraguay.

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