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Mexico’s President Continues to Blast US Investigation of Former Defense Secretary

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday renewed his attack on the U.S. investigation of a former Mexican defense secretary and warned that the U.S. Justice Department should consider carefully its threat to suspend cooperation with Mexico. López Obrador defended the decision by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office not to pursue charges against retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, and he mocked the results of the seven-year investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “How are you going to accuse someone based on photographs of phone screens?” López Obrador said in reference to hundreds of pages of evidence the U.S. government shared with Mexico after dropping charges against Cienfuegos and returning him to Mexico in November. On Friday, Mexico published all of the information the U.S. had shared, spurring a rare public rebuke from the Justice Department that expressed disappointment in Mexico’s decision to drop the case against Cienfuegos.  “The United States Department of Justice is also deeply disappointed by Mexico’s decision to publicize information shared with Mexico in confidence,” the U.S. department said in a statement Friday. “Publicizing such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.” López Obrador responded Monday: “I hope they think about it carefully, because I could say the same, too. We are disappointed with the DEA’s work.” López Obrador accused the DEA of making up the case against Cienfuegos. The intercepted message exchanges allegedly between Cienfuegos and members of the H-2 cartel suggest the then highest-ranking member of Mexico’s military was helping the cartel by keeping the military off their backs and going after their rivals. But López Obrador said the language used and the spelling mistakes committed by the person identified by U.S. prosecutors as Cienfuegos would not be possible from a mid-level officer, much less a high-ranking one. “They put it together in an improper way, without professionalism, without ethics,” the president said. “No foreign government can undermine the dignity and prestige of our nation.” López Obrador has heaped more responsibility — and power — on the armed forces than any recent president. The military was furious with Cienfuegos’ arrest in October at Los Angeles International Airport. The U.S. case also implicated other members of the military. Following Cienfuegos’ return, Mexico’s congress passed a law that will restrict U.S. agents in Mexico and remove their diplomatic immunity. Despite the heated rhetoric, López Obrador said he expects Mexico’s relationship with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to be unaffected. But he said things would be done differently in the bilateral security relationship.  “We cannot allow foreign agents to take charge of the functions of Mexico’s government,” he said. 

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Parler Partially Reappears with Support from Russian Technology Firm

Parler, a social media website and app popular with the American far right, has partially returned online with the help of a Russian-owned technology company.Parler vanished from the internet when dropped by Amazon Inc.’s hosting arm and other partners for poor moderation after its users called for violence and posted videos glorifying the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.On Monday, Parler’s website was reachable again, though only with a message from its chief executive saying he was working to restore functionality.The internet protocol address it used is owned by DDos-Guard, which is controlled by two Russian men and provides services including protection from distributed denial of service attacks, infrastructure expert Ronald Guilmette told Reuters.If the website is fully restored, Parler users would be able to see and post comments. Most users prefer the app, however, which remains banned from the official Apple and Google stores.Parler CEO John Matze and representatives of DDoS-Guard did not reply to requests for comment.Last Wednesday, Matze told Reuters the company was in talks with multiple service providers but declined to elaborate.DDoS-Guard has worked with other racist, rightist and conspiracy sites that have been used by mass murderers to share messages, including 8kun. It has also supported Russian government sites.DDoS-Guard’s website lists an address in Scotland under the company name Cognitive Cloud LP, but that is owned by two men in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Guilmette said. One of them told the Guardian recently that he was not aware of all of the content the company facilitates.Parler critics said it was a potential security risk for it to depend on a Russian company, as well as an odd choice for a site popular with self-described patriots.Russian propaganda has stoked political divisions in the United States, supporting outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump and amplifying false narratives about election fraud but also protests against police brutality.Parler, which disclosed it has more than 12 million users, sued Amazon last Monday after the ecommerce giant and cloud services provider cut off service, citing poor moderation of calls to violence.

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Students in Italy Protest as Schools Reopen  

Hundreds of students protested in Rome on Monday to demand more classrooms, transport to school and better access to education.After almost 10 months of remote learning, it was the first day back for high school pupils, yet many chose to demonstrate instead. For most high schools, only half of the students from each class were allowed to return to ensure enough space between desks for social distancing.”Remote learning is not working,” said high school student Simone Shiaze.He added, “Many families cannot afford providing digital devices to their children to attend internet lessons regularly.”According to Save the Children Italy, 34,000 high school students are at risk of dropping out from school due to the hardships they faced in following the remote learning mode.United Nations cultural agency UNESCO reported that more than 10 million students were affected by COVID-19 restrictions in Italy.Italy on Sunday registered 12,545 new infections, raising to 2,381,277 the number of confirmed cases to date.Health Ministry figures also included 377 deaths since Saturday, bringing the overall known death toll to 82,177, one of the highest in Europe.  

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Should Social Media Platforms Lose Legal Protection?

The decision by social media giants to police more content, along with banning U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters from posting, is intensifying a debate in Europe over how to regulate platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.The hotly contested debate has mostly focused on whether governments should intervene to censor and curtail freedom of speech, or whether they should protect opinion from being blocked or scrubbed by the social media giants, however offensive the views. But a growing number of European leaders sees a third way to reduce fake news, hate speech, disinformation and poisonous personal attacks — by treating social media providers not as owners of neutral platforms connecting consumers with digital content creators but as publishers in their own right. This would help sidestep fears over state censorship of speech, they say.Amending laws to make them legally responsible, just as traditional newspapers and broadcasters are for the content they carry, would render the social media companies liable for defamation and slander lawsuits. By blocking content and banning some users, social media companies have unwittingly boosted the argument that they are content providers, as they are now in practice taking on a greater role as editors of opinion.British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference in Downing Street on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, in London, Dec. 24, 2020.“I do think there’s a real debate now to be had about the status of the big internet companies and whether they should be identified as mere platforms or as publishers, because when you start editorializing, then you’re in a different world,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a parliamentary committee last week. Many European Union leaders have criticized social media companies for banishing Trump and his supporters from their platforms. Facebook has blocked or deleted content that uses the phrase, “Stop the Steal,” which refers to false claims of election fraud. Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts of QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media.German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media during a statement at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2020 on the results of the US elections.German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her concerns about the blocking and deleting, calling it a step too far.“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, told reporters.Some countries led by populist governments, such as Poland, are considering drafting legislation that would prohibit Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies from censoring opinions, fearing the social media giants will censor them.But political pressure is also mounting in other countries for the state to regulate speech and to police social media platforms.The idea that social media companies should be subject to similar regulation as newspapers and television and radio broadcasters is not new. Newspaper owners have long bristled at the social media platforms being treated differently under the law from traditional media. They have complained that Facebook and others are piggy backing off the content they produce, while reaping massive profits selling ads.FILE – The Facebook application is displayed on a mobile phone at a store in Chicago, July 30, 2019.Last year, Facebook pushed back on the idea of social media platforms being treated like traditional media, arguing in a report that they should be placed in a separate category halfway between newspapers and the telecommunications industry. The company agreed that new regulatory rules are needed but argued they should focus on the monitoring and removal of mechanisms that firms might put in place to block “harmful” posts, rather than restrictions on companies carrying specific types of speech or being liable for content. Johnson’s advocacy of treating social media giants like traditional media is being echoed in the United States, where Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The measure largely allowed the companies to regulate themselves and shielded them from liability for much of the content posted on their platforms.Section 230 of the legislation stated: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Ironically, Section 230 has drawn the disapproval of both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. Both have called for the section’s repeal, which would make social media legally responsible for what people post, rendering them vulnerable to lawsuits for defamation and slander. Last week, Biden told The New York Times he favored the internet’s biggest liability shield being “revoked, immediately.” 

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Winter Weather Hits Parts of Europe, From Poland to Turkey

Extreme cold has hit large parts of Europe, with freezing temperatures cracking railroad tracks in Poland, snow blanketing the Turkish city of Istanbul and smog spiking as coal was being burned to generate heat.
Temperatures dropped to minus 28 degrees Celsius (minus 18 Fahrenheit) in some Polish areas overnight, the coldest night in 11 years. Many trains were delayed on Monday after rail tracks at two Warsaw railway stations cracked.
Hand-in-hand with the cold came a spike in smog in Warsaw and other parts of Poland, as the cold prompted an increase in burning coal for heat. The smog levels were so high in Warsaw that city officials urged people to remain indoors.
Just across Poland’s southwestern border, the Czech Republic experienced the coldest night this year with temperatures dropping below minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) in many places.
The lowest temperature, of minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 16 Fahrenheit), was recorded Monday in Orlicke Zahori, a mountainous village 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Prague and near the Polish border, according to the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute.
The freezing weather was expected to ease and be replaced by heavy snowfall in the northeastern Czech Republic, the institute said.
In Istanbul, traffic was brought to a halt by the layer of snow covering the city, with cars stalled or skidding on the roads. The flurries were to continue throughout the day.
In Germany, fresh snow, slippery roads and fallen trees led to several car accidents on Sunday and overnight, the dpa news agency reported. A driver died in southwestern Germany after his car shot over a mound of snow.
The Nordic region — where winter weather is the norm — also saw snow and subfreezing temperatures, with the coldest temperatures predictably recorded in the Arctic. Norway’s meteorological institute tweeted a tongue-in-cheek message on Monday, saying: “we encourage all knitting lovers to send woolen clothes to their friends in the north.”

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Markets Mixed in Face of Economic, Political Turmoil

European markets are mixed Monday as investors pull back in response to last week’s dismal U.S. retail figures, along with the worsening COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol building.   
 
Britain’s FTSE index is down 0.3% at midday.  France’s CAC-40 index is also 0.3% lower, while the DAX index in Germany is up 10 points but unchanged percentage-wise (+0.08%).   
 
Asian markets began the trading week on a downward spiral hours earlier.  Japan’s benchmark Nikkei index fell 0.9%.  Australia’s S&P/ASX index closed down 0.7%.  The KOSPI index in South Korea plunged 2.3%, while Taiwan’s TSEC lost just over 4 points, but was virtually unchanged percentage-wise (0.03%) and the Sensex in Mumbai was down 0.9%.
 
Shanghai’s Composite index closed 0.8% higher and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose just over one percent, spurred by news that China’s economy grew 2.3% in 2020, overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic that has shattered much of the global economy.   
 
In commodities trading, gold is up 0.1%, selling at $1,831.80.  U.S. crude oil is selling at $52.19, down 0.3%, and Brent crude is selling at $54.82, down 0.5%.    
 
All three major U.S. indices are closed in observance of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. federal  holiday.  

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Honduran Migrants Met With Tear Gas at Guatemala Border

Roughly 100 Honduran migrants were met with tear gas and struck by police with batons when they tried to pass through a roadblock on the border with Guatemala.
 
The group of migrants were part of roughly 2,000 Hondurans who stopped Saturday night behind the roadblock.
The majority stayed behind Sunday morning when the clashes between some members of their group and police began. None of the migrants made it through the roadblock.
 
Hundreds of migrants later sat in the roadway, refusing to move and attempting to appeal to Guatemalan authorities as fellow Central Americans.
 
The Associated Press reported that many migrants showed visible injuries from batons after the clash.
 
At least 9,000 migrants from Honduras had crossed into Guatemala Saturday in a caravan that began one day earlier, hoping to reach the United States in the early days of the new presidential administration.
 
The Guatemalan government issued a statement Saturday calling on Honduran authorities to “contain the massive departure of its inhabitants, through permanent preventive actions.”
 
Few of the migrants possessed the negative COVID-19 tests Guatemala requires upon entry.
 
Traveling on foot, the migrants say they are willing to brave a journey of thousands of kilometers through Guatemala and Mexico to reach the U.S., escaping poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and natural disasters in their country.What appears to be the first migrant caravan from a Central America country this year includes women and young children. Coming less than a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office, some migrants say they hope that the new administration with be more sympathetic than the Trump administration to their plea for a better life.Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico have said they are collectively taking security and public health measures because of the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent unauthorized border crossings.Mexican officials said Thursday, they had discussed migration with Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and raised “the possibility of implementing a cooperation program for the development of northern Central America and southern Mexico, in response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the recent hurricanes in the region.”Last month, Honduran authorities stopped a caravan before it reached the Guatemalan border. Last year, other caravans were broken up by Guatemala’s authorities before reaching Mexico.
 

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Leading Greek Sporting Official Resigns Following Rape Charges 

A leading Greek sporting official has resigned over allegations that he sexually assaulted Olympic sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou. The revelation has sparked an urgent judicial investigation, prompting more alleged victims to speak out about similar sexual assaults. But prosecuting the alleged offenders may prove impossible due to ineffective laws. 
Greeks are already calling her the silence breaker. And 23 years after the alleged rape took place during qualifying matches for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Sofia Bekatorou now says she wants more women victims to speak out.   “The messages I am receiving are hugely positive and supportive,” she said. Bekatorou says she knows more victims are out there in the field of sport and is calling on them all to make their accusations known.   A gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics in her homeland, Bekatorou referred to the alleged rape during an online conference organized by the Greek Sports Ministry over the weekend. She refused to name the official at the time, but when a local prosecutor called her in during an urgent probe, she is said to have identified Aristides Adamopoulos, then a senior member of the Hellenic Sailing federation. He is also a local official of the ruling New Democracy party.   Bekatorou is due to reappear before the prosecutor by Tuesday to provide additional details – accusations that Adamopoulos has not denied. Adamopoulos has urged he public to refrain from reaching what he called any rash decision.   Andonis Dimitrakopoulos, the president of the federation, said he pushed Adamopoulos to resign over the weekend to clear his name. Dimitrakopoulos said the sporting organization was not aware of the alleged assault and more importantly, would have helped put a lid on the entire affair if Adamopoulos had sought out the support of the federation. Bekatorou says the admission left her stunned. “That the federation would respond to such a serious accusation in such a way is just regrettable,” she said.   Two other leading athletes have since spoken out about similar alleged assaults, including national water polo champion Mania Bikoff, who alleges her team doctor sexually harassed her decades ago. The doctor, who was not named, did not respond to the accusation.    “I was going in for shoulder treatments and he was asking me to instead pull down my pants. He never did anything but would sit there and observe me naked,” said Bikoff. The Hellenic Olympic Committee has also opened an investigation.   For a small, close-knit society like Greece, public revelations of this sort are uncommon, even as #MeToo movements grip countries across the globe.     But even if a subtle change in the country’s cultural mindset is starting to take form, pundits warn that laws lag far behind.   Rape offenders in Greece can face between five and 20 years in prison if convicted. A statue of limitations has already expired in the case of Adamopoulos.   Legal experts contacted by VOA say related laws should now be revised to have the timing on the statute of limitations begin when alleged victims like Bekatorou report the offense.  

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