Category Archives: News

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The Ultimate in Luxury Air Travel

If you’re wealthy and you want to buy an airplane, no matter how big, you want to go to the biennial Dubai Air Show. There, you will find everything, from a small two-seater to a diamond-encrusted jet. Aircraft manufacturers say business is booming as more and more rich people try to avoid crowded commercial flights. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Trump Claims ‘Tremendous Success’ of Recent Trip to Asia

In his speech Wednesday, a day after returning from a 12-day Asia trip, U.S. President Donald Trump boasted of “tremendous success” in pushing America’s interests forward. During stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Trump pursued his “America First” philosophy, calling for more favorable trade deals for the U.S. He also urged North Korea not to test the U.S. resolve to defend itself and its allies. VOA’S Zlatica Hoke reports.

Africa’s Renewable Energy Set to Soar by 2022

Strong demand is set to give a huge boost to renewable energy growth in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years, driving cumulative capacity up more than 70 percent, a senior international energy official said Wednesday.

From Ethiopia to South Africa, millions of people are getting access to electricity for the first time as the continent turns to solar, wind and hydropower projects to boost generation capacity.

“A big chunk of this [growth] is hydro because of Ethiopia, but then you have solar … in South Africa, Nigeria and Namibia and wind in South Africa and Ethiopia as well,” said Paolo Frankl, head of the renewable division at the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

He forecast installed capacity of renewable energy in the Sub-Saharan region almost doubling — from around 35 gigawatts now to above 60 gigawatts, given the right conditions.

Ethiopia has an array of hydropower projects under construction, including the $4.1 billion Grand Renaissance Dam along the Nile River that will churn out 6,000 megawatts upon completion.

That is enough for a good-sized city for a year.

“Africa has one of the best potential resources of renewables anywhere in the world, but it depends very much on the enabling framework, on the governance and the right rules,” Frankl told Reuters on the sidelines of a wind energy conference.

Coal industry opposition

The transition to a low-carbon trajectory to reduce harmful greenhouse gases is creating opposition from the coal industry and fueling uncertainty in countries where job creation was linked to coal mining.

In Africa, this tension and its impact on new investment has been best illustrated by South Africa’s state-owned Eskom and its reluctance to sign new deals with independent power producers, according to analysts.

In May, the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) said the energy regulator agreed to investigate Eskom’s refusal to sign agreements that delayed 2,942 megawatts in new solar and wind projects.

“Our government does not appear to appreciate the forces of nature,” SAWEA Chairman Mark Pickering said Wednesday.

The inability of Eskom to sign the new power purchase agreements for two years has delayed investment of 58 billion rand ($4.03 billion), and hit investor confidence with at least one shutdown of a wind turbine manufacturing plant, said SAWEA.

“The continent has a lot of potential, but the problem is financial and political issues, so all of our projects are being delayed for quite a long time, like with Eskom,” said Mason Qin, business development manager for southern and eastern Africa at China’s Goldwind.

IS May Sustain Virtual Caliphate After Battlefield Losses, Experts Say

With the Islamic State group almost defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria and its territorial hold dramatically reduced, the terror group and its sympathizers continue to demonstrate their ability to weaponize the internet in an effort to radicalize, recruit and inspire acts of terrorism in the region and around the world.

Experts charge that the terror group’s ability to produce and distribute new propaganda has been significantly diminished, particularly after it recently lost the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital and media headquarters.

But they warn that the circulation of its old media content and easy access to it on social media platforms indicates that the virtual caliphate will live on in cyberspace for some time, even as IS’s physical control ends.

“Right now we have such a huge problem on the surface web — and [it’s] really easy to access literally tens of thousands of videos that are fed to you, one after the other, [and] that are leading to radicalization,” Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College and adviser for the group Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in Washington, said Monday.

Little headway

Speaking at a panel discussion about the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms in an age of global extremism at the Washington-based Newseum, Farid said the social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to get radical Islamist content off the internet, but significant, game-changing results have yet to be seen.

Farid said social media companies are facing increasing pressure from governments and counterterrorism advocates to remove content that fuels extremism.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced it had developed new artificial intelligence programs to identify extremist posts and had hired thousands of people to monitor content that could be suspected of inciting violence.

Twitter also reported that it had suspended nearly 300,000 terrorism-related accounts in the first half of the year.

YouTube on Monday said Alphabet’s Google in recent months had expanded its crackdown on extremism-related content. The new policy, Reuters reported, will affect videos that feature people and groups that have been designated as terrorists by the U.S. or British governments.

The New York Times reported that the new policy has led YouTube to remove hundreds of videos of the slain jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki lecturing on the history of Islam, recorded long before he joined al-Qaida and encouraged violence against the U.S.

The World Economic Forum’s human rights council issued a report last month, warning tech companies that they might risk tougher regulations by governments to limit freedom of speech if they do not stem the publishing of violent content by Islamic State and the spread of misinformation.

IS digital propaganda has reportedly motivated more than 30,000 people to journey thousands of miles to join IS, according to a report published by Wired, a magazine published in print and online editions that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy and politics.

An ongoing struggle

Experts say measures to restrict cyberspace for terrorist activities could prove helpful, but they warn it cannot completely prevent terror groups from spreading their propaganda online and that it will be a struggle for some time.

According to Fran Townsend, the former U.S. homeland security adviser, terrorist groups are constantly evolving on the internet as the new security measures force them onto platforms that are harder to track, such as encrypted services like WhatsApp and Telegram and file-sharing platforms like Google Drive.

She said last month’s New York City attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, used Telegram to evade U.S counterterrorism authorities.

“This guy was on Telegram in ISIS chat rooms. He went looking for them, he was able to find them, and he was able to communicate on an encrypted app that evaded law enforcement,” Townsend said during Monday’s panel on extremism at the Newseum.

U.S. officials said Saipov viewed 90 IS propaganda videos online, and more than 4,000 extremism related images were found on his cellphones, including instructions on how to carry out vehicular attacks.

As the crackdown increases on online jihadi propaganda, experts warn the desperate terror groups and their lone wolf online activists and sympathizers could aggressively retaliate.

Last week, about 800 school websites across the United States were attacked by pro-IS hackers. The hack, which lasted for two hours, redirected visitors to IS propaganda video and images of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Similar attacks were also reported in Europe, including last week’s hacking of MiX Megapil, a private radio station in Sweden where a pro-IS song was played for about 30 minutes.

A global response

Experts maintain that to counter online extremism and terrorism, there is a need for a coordinated international response as social media platforms continue to cross national borders and jurisdictions.

Last month, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the Group of Seven advanced economies joined forces against jihadi online propaganda and vowed to remove the content from the web within two hours of its being uploaded.

“Our European colleagues — little late to this game, by the way — have come into it in a big way,” Townsend said.

She said the U.S-led West had given more attention to physical warfare against IS at the expense of the war in cyberspace.

“We have been very proficient in fighting this in physical space. … But we were late in the game viewing the internet,” she said.

Townsend added that the complexity of the problem requires action even at the local level.

“The general public can be a force multiplier,” she said, adding, “As you’re scrolling through your feed and you see something … it literally takes 50 seconds for you to hit a button and tell Twitter, ‘This should not be here and it’s not appropriate content.’ And it will make a difference.”

Trump in Political Maelstrom Over Moore Senate Candidacy

U.S. President Donald Trump is facing a political maelstrom over Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, whether to join prominent Republicans in trying to force him to end his candidacy in the wake of sexual misconduct accusations from four decades ago.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and two former Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain, have all said that the 70-year-old Moore should drop out of the December 12 election in the southern state, but Trump, back in Washington after a five-nation Asian trip, has yet to weigh in.

Two women have accused Moore of unwanted sexual advances when they were teenagers and Moore was in his early 30s. Three other women said that at about the same time in the late 1970s, Moore pursued them for dates when he was a local prosecutor and they were in high school.

Moore has been defiant in refusing to quit the race against Democrat Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor, to fill the remaining three years of a Senate seat once held by Jeff Sessions, who resigned to join Trump’s Cabinet as attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement position.

Moore has vehemently denied the sexual misconduct allegations, while not denying that he dated much younger women.

He has blamed the media for harassing his campaign and said he would sue The Washington Post, the newspaper that a week ago published the first wave of accusations from four women in on-the-record interviews. On Monday, a fifth accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, alleged that Moore assaulted her one night in the late 1970s after she finished work at a barbecue restaurant that Moore frequented in Gadsden, Alabama. Moore claimed to not know the woman, but in 1977 had wished her Merry Christmas in her high school yearbook.

“To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say ‘Merry Christmas’…Love, Roy Moore D.A.,” the inscription said, referring to his job as a district attorney.

Moore has attempted to rally his political supporters and focus his campaign on Christian virtues, saying Tuesday night, “If we don’t come back to God, we’re not going anywhere.” Political surveys show Moore and Jones in a close contest in the politically conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in last year’s presidential election.

Trump, while traveling overseas, deflected questions about Moore. “I have to get back into the country to see what’s happening,” he said.

Trump faces a political dilemma in dealing with Moore. The candidate could ignore any entreaty from the president to quit the race since Trump supported Moore’s opponent in a September Republican party primary election, appointed Senator Luther Strange. But after Moore won the primary, Trump voiced his support.

In addition, if Trump says, as other Republicans have, that he believes the women’s accusations against Moore, Trump critics are likely to question why the five women’s accounts are to be believed, but not those of 11 women who during the 2016 presidential election accused Trump of unwanted touching or kissing. Trump said they were liars and promised to sue them, but has not.

Now, Moore’s name would remain on the ballot even if he were to drop out, since the deadline to withdraw from the race has long passed.

McConnell and other Republican officials have floated the idea of mounting a write-in candidacy to try to defeat Moore. Some have suggested that Strange attempt to keep the Senate seat in Republican hands with a write-in bid, while others have suggested that Sessions resign as attorney general and attempt to reclaim the Senate seat he held for 20 years.

Other Republicans are saying that if Moore wins the election and is seated in the 100-member Senate, they would immediately try to expel him as morally unfit to be a U.S. senator.

Airbus to Sell 430 Planes to Indigo for $49.5 Billion

Airbus announced on Wednesday that it will sell 430 airplanes to U.S. firm Indigo Partners for $49.5 billion in the European firm’s biggest deal ever.

The announcement came at the Dubai Air Show and the deal includes 273 A320neos and 157 A321neos. The airlines that use the aircraft will include Frontier Airlines, JetSMART of Chile, Volaris of Mexico and Wizz Air of Hungary.

A320neos list for $108.4 million apiece and A321neos at $127 million. Airlines and manufacturers often negotiate lower prices for big deals like these.

Indigo Partners is a Phoenix-based private equity firm. It owns Denver-based Frontier Airlines and owns part of Mexico’s Volaris. It’s managed by William Franke, a pioneer of the cheap tickets and high fees airline business that has spread overseas and is growing in the United States.

Airbus’ previous biggest-ever sale came in August 2015, when it sold 250 A320neos to Indian budget airline IndiGo, a deal estimated to be worth $26 billion at list prices. IndiGo and Indigo Partners are separate firms with separate management.

Until Wednesday, the only major deal announced at the Dubai Air Show came on Sunday, when long-haul carrier Emirates purchased 40 Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners in a $15.1 billion deal.

Airbus, which is based in Toulouse, France, has pinned hopes of continuing production of its A380 double-decker jumbo jet on Emirates, the world’s largest operator of the aircraft. Reports circulated before the air show that a major A380 sale would be coming.

Airbus employees even filled a news conference on Sunday, expecting the A380 sale, instead to find state-owned Emirates making the deal with Boeing in front of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Emirates now relies solely on the Airbus 380 and the Boeing 777 for its flights, making it the largest operator of both. It has 165 Boeing 777s in its fleet today and took possession of its 100th A380 earlier this month.

The Emirates’ snub even came up at the news conference Wednesday, when a reporter asked Airbus if another deal could be coming.

“I think you’ve got to walk over to the chalet with Emirates on the door and ask them,” said John Leahy, Airbus’ chief operating officer.

Employers Hire Sexual Harassment Trainers

Recent accusations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is impacting the upper echelons of the business world. The “Weinstein Effect” has men in powerful positions facing similar accusations. It is also increasing awareness about where the line is between friendly banter to more uncomfortable, and sometimes criminal motives. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes us to a class that teaches how to intervene when witnessing sexual harassment.

Analysis: Sessions Seeks Balance in Pondering Clinton Probe

In asking senior federal prosecutors to examine a number of Republican grievances, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to strike a balance.

He appears to be attempting to placate a boss who has repeatedly suggested that Sessions’ own job might be in jeopardy for failing to investigate his Democratic rivals. At the same time, Sessions is taking a step toward defending the Justice Department’s credibility by leaving the actual work to senior officials whose findings, while unlikely to please everyone, would have more credibility.

In a letter this week, the department directed senior federal prosecutors to “evaluate certain issues” raised by Republican lawmakers. Among them: whether a special counsel should be appointed to look into allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from an Obama-era uranium transaction involving a Russian state company, a deal President Donald Trump himself has continually urged the Justice Department to investigate.

Unlike other members of the president’s Cabinet, the attorney general is construed as mostly an independent operator, under longstanding policy, practice and executive protocol. The Justice Department is not supposed to be influenced by the White House in deciding which cases to prosecute and which to discard after a review. The department’s top staff is a mix of career officials and political appointees who juggle investigations behind closed doors while working more publicly to advance the administration’s law enforcement agenda.

Sessions may be trying to dig himself out of a bind with a move that allows him to say he handled the allegations properly by referring them to prosecutors, who could then credibly close the case without debasing the Justice Department. Neither the letter, signed by Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general, nor Sessions named the senior prosecutors who will be involved in the review sought by Republicans. But they will most likely be career officials accustomed to operating free from political sway.

While the term “senior prosecutor” could also refer to a politically appointed U.S. attorney, Sessions would face immediate backlash for putting the probe in the hands of a Trump-appointee.

Critics on both sides

But while this may offer Sessions a greater measure of job security for now, a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday showed he has so far satisfied very few of his critics.

Despite attempts to reassure Democrats to the contrary, the mere issuance of the letter immediately raised alarms that Justice was attempting to do the bidding of the president, who has publicly lamented that he has so little direct influence over the agency’s affairs.

And Republicans, who have long called for an investigation of Hillary Clinton, questioned why a probe hasn’t been under way by now.

“If you are now just considering it, what’s it going to take?” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio asked Sessions during the five-hour oversight hearing where the issue consumed a great deal of the focus. Jordan said it looked like there was already enough evidence to appoint a special counsel.

“It would take a factual basis,” Sessions said, adding that “`looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”

The committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, questioned whether Sessions was being improperly influenced by Trump. Sessions said several times that any such review involving Hillary Clinton would be done without regard to political considerations.

“I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced,” Sessions declared. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he says, but people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.”

Presidents for decades have taken care to avoid being seen as meddling in Justice Department affairs, though they on occasion have expressed personal opinions about specific investigations. President Barack Obama, for instance, once said that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the Internal Revenue Service — even as the FBI was still investigating. And he also contended that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server hadn’t harmed national security.

Trump, however, has shown little concern for the traditional boundary between the White House and the Justice Department, tweeting just last week: “People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!”

Trump Asks if Released US Basketball Players Will Thank Him

President Donald Trump is asking whether three American college basketball players will thank him for helping secure their release from custody in China after being accused of shoplifting.

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump said the players “were headed for 10 years in jail!”

Trump asked his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to personally intervene in the case when the two leaders met during his visit to Beijing last week.

The players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, were questioned for allegedly stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou. They were released on bail last week, but had been told to remain in Hangzhou until the legal process was completed.

The players returned home Tuesday.



Papa John’s Apologizes for Criticizing NFL Anthem Protests

Papa John’s apologized Tuesday night for comments made by CEO John Schnatter blaming sluggish pizza sales on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

The company is a major NFL sponsor and advertiser, and Schnatter said on an earnings call Nov. 1 that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” and that the protests “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

The company tweeted a statement offering to “work with the players and league to find a positive way forward.”

“The statements made on our earnings call were describing the factors that impact our business and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive,” it said. “That definitely was not our intention.

“We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”

The movement was started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled to protest what he said was police mistreatment of blacks. More players began kneeling after President Donald Trump said at an Alabama rally last month that team owners should get rid of players who protest during the anthem.

Papa John’s added that it is “open to ideas from all. Except neo-nazis.” It has previously tried to distance itself from white supremacists who praised Schnatter’s comments, saying it does not want those groups to buy its pizza.

The company’s stock has fallen by nearly 13 percent since Schnatter’s comments.

Vietnam’s Largest IT Company Touts Free Trade for Growth

Eleven countries meeting at the APEC summit in Da Nang agreed Saturday to seek a trans-pacific free trade agreement, despite the world’s largest market – the United States – pulling out of the deal.  Vietnam is expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of freer trade as it expands rapidly growing exports, including technology.  VOA’s Daniel Schearf visited Vietnam’s largest technology company, FPT, and has an exclusive interview with its chairman in Danang.

The Most-Advanced U.S. Manned Spy Plane

Before advanced satellites and drones started collecting military intelligence, the U.S. relied on high-flying supersonic aircraft that could quickly penetrate the airspace of adversary countries, take pictures and exit before being caught. The last of those planes, retired in 1998, still holds several world records. But now, spy planes can only be found in museums. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Report: Crack Down on Internet Freedoms Continues to Undermine Democracy

U.S. intelligence agencies say that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in part through online propaganda. But a new report shows the United States was not the only target. According to the 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report, disinformation campaigns are increasing as Internet freedom declines globally. VOA’s Jesusemen Oni has the findings of the report.

Flirting With Default, Venezuela Vows Debt Payment

Venezuela’s cash-strapped government on Tuesday vowed it was making debt payments responsibly, even as two ratings agencies declared partial default on a crippling debt load that has fueled hunger and disease.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government left investors scratching their heads on Monday after a debt negotiation meeting that offered no specifics on plans to avoid default or execute an unlikely restructuring plan.

Despite optimism that payment will continue in the short-term, investors believe the country will at some point be unable to service some $60 billion in junk bonds — potentially triggering messy lawsuits and worsening an already difficult economic situation.

“Today we have initiated payment of interest on Venezuela’s foreign debt,” said Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in a televised speech, apparently referring to delayed payment of $200 million on several Venezuelan bonds.

Debt renegotiation

Government officials describe Monday’s meeting as the start of a debt renegotiation process that Maduro announced earlier this month.

Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislature created in August despite condemnation by the opposition and the international community, on Tuesday approved a resolution “to support and accompany the refinancing process.”

But investors say that no such process in fact exists. They say Maduro’s government has presented no coherent financial plan, and that any such plan would likely be made impossible by U.S. sanctions.

Bonds downgraded

Ratings agency Fitch on Tuesday downgraded Venezuelan bonds to “selective default,” citing delays in paying interest on bonds maturing in 2019 and 2024. The decision followed a similar one by S&P on Monday and by Fitch on debt from state oil company PDVSA.

“Selective default” means that a ratings agency believe that a borrower has defaulted on some of its obligations but will likely continue to make timely payments on others.

In response, Venezuela and PDVSA bonds tumbled on Tuesday, wiping out most of a rally from last week that had been driven by investor confidence that payment would continue.

In a sign it may be gearing up for a legal dispute, Venezuela has appointed lawyer David Syed to advise it, working alongside a team at global law firm Dentons, according to IFR, a Thomson Reuters news service.

Routine delays

Investors nonetheless appear to remain broadly comfortable with a wait-and-see approach, with no clear signs of creditors preparing to file legal claims in response to payment delays.

That approach is encouraged by the staggering investment return on Venezuelan bonds, which Tuesday were paying an average of 50 percentage points more than comparable U.S. securities.

Delays have become routine since October, when Venezuela and PDVSA starting using 30-day grace periods to stretch out limited cash-flow. Investors broadly shrug them off, and some take advantage of associated market jitters to buy them on the cheap.

U.S. citizens blocked

Sanctions by the government of U.S. President Donald Trump, in response to accusations that Maduro’s government has undermined democracy and systematically violated human rights, block U.S. citizens from buying newly issued Venezuelan debt.

That makes it effectively impossible for the country to refinance, because such operations rely on swaps in which investors exchange outstanding bonds for new ones.

The measures also bar any dealings with dozens of blacklisted officials, including Vice President Tareck El Aissami and Economy Minister Simon Zerpa — the two main leaders of the debt negotiation commission.

Venezuela has dismissed U.S. accusations of drug-dealing and corruption by its officials as politically motivated fabrications by Washington to tarnish the country’s reputation, and describes the sanctions as a colonial exercise by the Trump government.

Venezuelans hit hard

Four years of recession in the South American nation, fueled by failing socialist economics and a plunge in global oil prices, have hit Venezuelans hard. Many skip meals or suffer from malnutrition and preventable diseases.

With some $9 billion in payments looming for 2018, a default would be a short-term relief for the government, enabling Maduro to spend on desperately-needed food and medicine imports ahead of next year’s presidential election.

But that strategy could also backfire if it sparks aggressive legal challenges from abroad, including moves to seize assets of PDVSA.

Alaska Airlines Discontinues Los Angeles-Havana Daily Flight

U.S. airline Alaska Airlines on Tuesday said it would discontinue a daily flight between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba, after Jan. 22, due to the recent changes in Cuba travel policies by the U.S. government.

The U.S. government made it tougher last week for Americans to visit Cuba and do business in the country, making good on a pledge by President Donald Trump to roll back his Democratic predecessor’s move toward warmer ties with Havana.

The regulations include a ban on Americans doing business with some 180 Cuban government entities, holding companies, and tourism companies.

The airline which started the Los Angeles-Havana flight in January this year, said it will redeploy the aircraft to other markets with stronger demand.

Passengers who have tickets booked to Havana after January 22 will be rebooked on another airline at no additional cost or a full refund, the company said.

Sudan to Unify Currency Rate in Bid to Win Foreign Investment

Sudan is taking steps to close the gap between its official and unofficial currency rates and scrap subsidies by end-2019 to win foreign investment after U.S. sanctions ended, Minister of State for Finance Magdi Hassan Yassin told Reuters on Tuesday.

Washington last month suspended 20-year sanctions and lifted a trade embargo because it decided that Sudan had made progress on counterterrorism cooperation and on internal conflicts such as one in Darfur. It also unfroze assets and removed financial restrictions.

Sudan is hoping the measures will help the import-dependent country get back on its feet after years of hardship caused partly when the south seceded in 2011 and it lost three-quarters of its oil output, its main source of foreign currency.

“We will gradually lift subsidies in accordance with the five-year plan by the end of 2019. … Most of the things that hinder foreign investment are being addressed and there are reforms to investment and company laws,” Yassin said.

Sudan last November cut fuel and electricity subsidies and announced import restrictions to save scarce foreign currency.

Sudan’s year-on-year inflation decreased in October to 33.08 percent from 35.13 percent in September on the back of lower food and beverage prices, a report from Sudan’s central statistics agency said Tuesday.

Sudan’s central bank has held the official exchange rate at 6.7 pounds to the dollar but currency is largely unavailable at that price. The pound currently hovers around 23 pounds to the dollar, according to currency traders.

“The 2018 budget, which will start in January, will be the first budget after the U.S. ended the economic sanctions. … The central bank will set policies to unify the exchange rate,” Yassin said.

But “there are no directions to float the pound,” he added.

Analysts and officials say Sudan must conduct tough reforms such as floating its currency if it hopes to benefit from sanctions relief and begin to attract new investment.

US Commerce Chief: ‘Some Sort’ of NAFTA Deal Will Reach Trump

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Tuesday that he believes NAFTA negotiations will produce “some sort” of a deal for President Donald Trump to evaluate but repeated his warnings that the United States will walk away from the trade pact if key problems are unresolved.

Ross, speaking before the start of a fifth round of talks this week to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Mexico and Canada would suffer far more than the United States if the pact is dissolved.

“I would certainly prefer them to come to their senses and make a sensible deal,” Ross told a Wall Street Journal CEO forum.

“In any negotiation if you have one party that is not in fact prepared to walk away over whatever are the threshold issues, that party is going to lose,” Ross added.

Trump has relentlessly criticized NAFTA for draining U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico, calling it “the worst trade deal ever made” and threatening to scrap it unless it can be improved to reduce U.S. trade deficits with Mexico and Canada.

Ross said Trump’s “general point of view is that no deal is better than a terrible deal,” but added that he does not know how Trump will evaluate a deal resulting from negotiations.

“Some sort of a draft will land on his desk. So it will be a binary decision in that sense,” Ross said.

At negotiations resuming in Mexico City on Thursday, Mexico and Canada are expected to respond to tough demands from the United States such as a five-year sunset clause that would effectively trigger frequent renegotiations as well as a controversial U.S.-specific content rule for automotive products and far higher regional automotive content.

Ross gave no indication that U.S. negotiators would soften their stance on these topics, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce counts among “poison pill” demands that could sink the talks.

Asked whether the content demands that 85 percent of a car’s value be produced within the region and 50 percent in the United States would simply drive auto and parts production to Asia, as industry executives have warned Ross said: “We don’t think so.

We believe there will be a different thing because of all the other changes that we’re making.”

He said Republican tax reform efforts including lower rates and immediate expensing of capital expenditure costs and regulatory changes would lower the cost of doing business and keep the United States attractive for automotive investment.

Trump has wanted a five-year sunset clause for trade agreements since he began campaigning for president Ross said, to ensure that they deliver promised benefits.

“The reason we want it is that the tragic truth is that forecasts that were made when trade agreements were entered into, never have been achieved, at least in the case of the U.S.”

Behind the Doors of Immigrant Detention

The first room in the former warehouse, now a detention center, is a waiting area where visitors check in and wait to see whether they will be allowed to visit a detainee.

Security screening is similar to that at an airport checkpoint. Visitors must show identification and leave belongings in a locker. No phones. No pictures. No recording of any kind.

“This one is actually nice. She is helpful,” a local volunteer who regularly visits detainees tells me about the security official standing behind the window. Above the window: “United We Stand.”

On a dead end road in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Elizabeth Detention Center is an immigration jail that holds about 285 people. Privately owned, it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the fifth-largest corrections company in the United States.

The center is in an industrial area surrounded by parking lots, a railroad, a freight station and the New Jersey Turnpike — a geographic location that works as an invisible wall.

Current U.S. policy is to detain those who ask for asylum once they reach a U.S. port of entry regardless of whether they have a valid visa. The Elizabeth Detention Center is a 15-minute drive from Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the busiest entry points to the U.S. for international arrivals.

A name and a number

It is late afternoon at the end of October; about 30 people are waiting to see friends or loved ones inside the Elizabeth facility. All the blue plastic chairs are taken, and there is a check-in line. Some wait outside. Church groups, mothers and children, and other people visiting loved ones wait their turn. Also, volunteers from local nonprofit groups visit detainees every week.

I have been given the name and alien number of a detainee by First Friends, an immigrant advocacy group. It’s all the information I need to be admitted as a volunteer visitor. The goal of the visitation program, according to First Friends organizers, is to give immigrants a moment of support and friendship.

I am asked to show identification. My Maryland driver’s license is met with a skeptical look by the officer. She double-checks front and back, but I get the green light to enter. Like all visitors, I must go through a metal detector, take my shoes and jacket off, and leave my pen and notebook behind. I then step inside a large metal jail door that closes with a clank before another slides open on the other side.

“I never get used to this sound,” another visitor tells me.

Once the gates of an immigration detention center close on asylum seekers, they may not open again for months. As of September, immigration officials say, there were more than 38,000 immigrants detained nationwide in 203 facilities. Detainees leave a detention center once their cases have been gone through the immigration process, which could mean authorization for them to live in the United States or deportation.

The visitation area is filled with round tables and chairs. Detainees must sit facing officers who are posted on the right side of the room. In the back, on a single row of chairs, immigrants wait for their visitors.

Under a Statue of Liberty mural, I sit at a round table and face Faras Khan from Pakistan, who is in the midst of deportation proceedings. His girlfriend is also visiting. As a corrections officer watches from the side of the room, Khan talks about his case, how he feels he is an American because he has not lived in Pakistan since he was a 1-year-old.

Visa overstayed

Khan’s father sought asylum after overstaying a nonimmigrant visa, claiming he had been persecuted in Pakistan. At the time, Khan, still a child, was listed as a derivative beneficiary. His father’s asylum was denied, and he was deported to Pakistan.

But Khan, now in his late 20s and diagnosed as bipolar, is fighting to stay. He was taken into custody after a meeting with immigration officials and has been detained for more than six months.

A 2016 Human Rights First report shows that clients held at New Jersey facilities, who were represented by Human Rights First pro bono attorneys, were detained for an average of eight months.

After detention

Edafe Okporo was held at Elizabeth for five months. He was taken there after his flight landed at Newark, and he requested asylum.

“I was told by immigration that they don’t have housing for immigrants, arriving alien, so I was told I was going to be taken to a jail,” Okporo said.

Okporo is from Nigeria, where he was working as an LGBTQ rights and public health activist in a country that does not recognize gay rights and criminalizes gay activity. In October 2016, he won an award from a New York human rights organization that published a photo of him and exposed his work.

“The community was calling for my execution, so I had to flee. I had a U.S. visa, and that was the only travel document I had to travel with,” Okporo said.

Okporo said his time in detention put him in a deep depression.

The rooms in Elizabeth, he said, are not private. Though there is a “privacy wall” inside showers and toilets, a person can still see what others are doing.

“I got alone. Lonely. … I’ve never been in that kind of isolation before. You are instructed on what to do and what not to do. And they are giving you food to eat, whether you like it or not, you just do it,” he said.

Anxiously waiting

Not knowing the outcome of his case also added to his anxiety.

“If I lose, I would be returning to my country. If I win, I would be released. Where I would be released? I was depressed because my family … I do not have communications because my family do not accept me because of my sexual orientation,” he said.

Okporo said that besides the volunteer visitation program, he found a way out in books and meditation.

“I love reading. I increased my passion for reading by always going to the library and picking up books to read,” he said. “Even [though] my body was incarcerated, my body was free because I was able to go through a day-to-day activity of how to meditate and get a grip of my mind.”

Okporo was granted asylum.

The American Friends Service Committee, which represents immigrants held in New Jersey detention facilities pro bono, reports that between February 2015 and September 2016 it represented 80 asylum seekers. Of those, 40 received asylum. All remained in detention while their claims were adjudicated.

Okporo will be eligible to apply for legal permanent resident status in one year. But he has already begun his new life in America. With First Friends’ help, he has gotten three jobs.

“I produced a cookbook,” he said proudly, “which featured 40 refugees from different countries around the world.”

Trump Approval Ratings at Around 30 Percent, President Says They’re Wrong

An array of surveys of voter approval ratings for U.S. President Donald Trump continue to be mired in the 30 percent range, but he contended Tuesday that an outlier poll with a higher mark proves the others are wrong.

The latest survey by Quinnipiac University showed American voters disapprove of Trump’s nearly 10-month White House tenure by a 58-to-35 percent margin, with 40 percent saying he is fit to serve as president and 57 percent he is not.

Other recent surveys showed similar results, with Gallup on Tuesday giving Trump a 57-38 disapproval rating. Last week, Reuters/Ipsos pegged his negative standing at 60-35, while The Washington Post-ABC News survey in early October showed a negative reading of 59-37, which it said was the lowest in seven decades at this point in the four-year terms of U.S. presidents.

However, Trump, in a Twitter comment, cited Monday’s result from the Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports, which showed him at a 53-46 negative standing and attacked mainstream national news outlets for citing the polls with his approval ratings in the 30-percent range.

“One of the most accurate polls last time around,” Trump said of Rasmussen. “But #FakeNews likes to say we’re in the 30’s. They are wrong. Some people think numbers could be in the 50’s. Together, WE will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

By Tuesday, the Rasmussen polling edged down for Trump, with a 54-44 negative reading.

Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy said, “President Donald Trump returns from his big Asia trip to find numbers frozen in the negative. Ominously, there is creeping slippage in (Trump’s political) base.”

Quinnipiac said that American voters by a 58-to-37-percent margin think that Trump is not honest, by 59-38 that he does not have good leadership skills, by 59-39 that he does not care about average Americans, by 65-30 that he is not level-headed and by 62-34 that he does not share their values.

On the plus side, Quinnipiac said by a 58-39 margin, voters think Trump is a strong person and by 55-41 that he is intelligent.

Study: Internet Freedom Worsens in Pakistan

A new independent study places Pakistan among the top four countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Syria, where people have been murdered in each of the last three years for writing about sensitive subjects online.

The annual “Freedom on the Net” report, released Tuesday by U.S.-based Freedom House, is based on an assessment of internet freedom in 65 countries, accounting for 87 percent of internet users worldwide. The latest study primarily focused on developments between June 2016 and May 2017.

The research declared Pakistan “not free” for a sixth consecutive year, noting internet freedom has deteriorated due to violence and intimidation related to social media activists.

“Internet shutdowns, a problematic cybercrime law, and cyberattacks against government critics contributed to the ongoing deterioration. Political speech online is vulnerable to restriction as Pakistan enters an election year in 2018,” the report noted.

The most frequent targets, it says, seem to be online journalists and bloggers covering politics, corruption and crime, as well as people who express religious views that may contrast with or challenge the views of the majority.

The study went on to conclude that perpetrators of the reprisal attacks remained unknown “but their actions often aligned with the interests of politically powerful individuals or entities.”

The report documented incidents of violence and intimidation during the research period. The government of Pakistan has not commented on the findings.

In June, a Pakistani court sentenced to death earlier this year an internet user, Taimoor Raza, for committing blasphemy on Facebook. In April, university student Mashal Khan was killed in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by a mob who accused him of posting blasphemous content online.

Khan’s murder sparked widespread outrage across Pakistan. An anti-terrorism court is hearing the lynching case against 57 suspects indicated by the court.

“Such attacks often succeed in silencing more than just the victim, encouraging wider self-censorship on sensitive issues like religion. The state’s failure to punish perpetrators of reprisal attacks for online speech perpetuates a cycle of impunity,” according to the report.

The Pakistani government enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in August 2016, introducing stronger censorship and surveillance powers with inadequate oversight, say critics.

Earlier this year, five bloggers known for criticizing the powerful military and religious militancy were abducted for few weeks. One of them later told media a government institution had detained and tortured him. Authorities had distanced themselves from the alleged abductions.

Tuesday’s report also criticized the government for the prolonged suspension of mobile internet services in parts of Pakistan, including the violence-plagued northwestern federally administered tribal areas, where security forces have been conducting anti-militancy operations.

About 15 Percent of US Federal Agencies Detected Kaspersky on Networks

About 15 percent of U.S. federal agencies have reported some trace of Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab software on their systems, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told Congress on Tuesday.

Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary for cybersecurity at DHS, told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that 94 percent of agencies had responded to a directive ordering them to survey their networks to identify any use of Kaspersky Lab products.

The Trump administration in September ordered civilian U.S. agencies to remove Kaspersky Lab from their networks, saying it was concerned the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm was vulnerable to Kremlin influence and that using its anti-virus software could jeopardize national security.

Kaspersky Lab has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama.

Silicon Valley Blasts US Senate Proposal to Tax Startup Options

A proposal by the U.S. Senate to change the way shares in startup companies are taxed incited panic and dread in Silicon Valley on Monday, with startup founders and investors warning of nothing less than the demise of their industry should the proposal become law.

The provision in the Senate’s tax reform plan, which appeared to catch the industry by surprise, involves the treatment of employee stock options. These options give the holder the right to purchase shares in the future at a set price and can be very valuable if a company does well and the share price increases.

Options are often a major portion of the compensation for startup employees and founders, who take lower salaries in anticipation of a big payout if their startup takes off. Options typically vest over a four-year period.

Senate Republicans have now proposed taxing those stock options as they vest and before startup employees have the opportunity to cash them in, resulting in annual tax bills that could easily climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, say startup founders and venture capitalists.

“If there were a single piece of legislation to adversely affect startups, it would be this,” said Venky Ganesan, managing director at venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. “Everyone is freaked out.”

Justin Field, vice president of government affairs at the National Venture Capital Association, said that the Senate’s proposed tax change would be “crippling” to the startup industry.

How far the provision gets remains to be seen. The National Venture Capital Association was successful in getting a similar proposal removed from the House tax bill, although it “didn’t fully appreciate” the Senate’s intention to add the tax provision, Field said.

The association also helped to steer lawmakers away from a proposal discussed late last year to tax venture capitalists’ profits on investments at a higher rate.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, has filed an amendment to repeal the provision in the tax bill, according to his spokesman.

A new proposal

Under current tax code, employees are taxed only when they exercise their options. Options are exercised when the price they were granted at–known as the strike price–is lower than the share price, and some shares can then be sold to pay the taxes.

But the Senate proposal would require startup employees to pay regular income tax on the value gain of their stock options even before they are exercised. These options are illiquid assets, and cannot be spent or saved.

“What this would mean is every month, when your equity compensation vests a little bit, you will owe taxes on it even though you can’t do anything with that equity compensation,” Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures, wrote on his blog Monday.

For instance, if a startup employee receives stock options at a dollar per share, and the shares increase in value by $1 every year during the four-year vesting period, the employee would have to pay income tax on $1 per share after the first year, pay again on the $1 increase in value after the second year, and so on.

When that employee owns hundreds of thousands and even millions of shares, that is a hefty bill to pay. And there is always the risk the startup will eventually fail.

“This reform will force the average employee to pay taxes on that bet well before they even know if it’s a winning ticket,” said Amanda Kahlow, founder and executive chairman of marketing data startup 6sense.

For startup founders in particular, such a tax bill could be ruinous.

“It would mean that I would have to sell the company,” said Shoaib Makani, founder and chief executive of long-haul trucking startup KeepTruckin. “I have zero net worth aside from the common stock I hold in the company. It would be impossible. I would be in default.”

Some executives in the startup industry, however, have pushed for companies to move toward bigger salaries so employees are not so dependent on options to buy a house or pay for other large expenses. And when startups suffer valuation cuts, employees can end up with worthless options.

The Senate’s proposal came as a revenue-generating measure to help offset tax breaks in the bill. A spokesman for Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, did not respond to requests for comment and other Republicans on the committee were not immediately available.

A spokeswoman for Senator Ron Wyden, the committee’s ranking member and a Democrat, said he was aware of concerns that the provision would limit startups’ ability to attract talent.

New Russia Probe Details Likely to Dominate Sessions Hearing

Attorney General Jeff Sessions returns to Capitol Hill this week amid growing evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Donald Trump, bracing for an onslaught of lawmaker questions about how much he knew of that outreach during last year’s White House campaign.

The appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday follows a guilty plea from one Trump campaign aide who served on a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, as well as statements from another adviser who said he’d advised the then-GOP Alabama senator about an upcoming trip to Russia.

Those details complicate Sessions’ effort to downplay knowledge of the campaign’s foreign contacts, and Democratic lawmakers who already contended the attorney general had not been forthcoming with them have signaled that questions about the new revelations are likely to dominate what could otherwise have been a routine oversight hearing.

“These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions,” Democrats from the committee said in a letter to Sessions last week.

Republicans, for their part, are likely to press Sessions on their demands for investigations into the Clinton Foundation and an Obama-era purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company.

In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said Sessions had directed “senior federal prosecutors” to “evaluate certain issues” raised in letters sent by Republican lawmakers, and to determine whether investigations – or the possible appointment of a special counsel – were warranted. 

Sessions, an early Trump backer who led a foreign policy advisory council during the campaign, has been shadowed for months by questions about his own communications with Russians and by contacts of others in the Trump orbit. That issue has been at the forefront of each of his congressional hearings even as Sessions has labored to promote the Justice Department’s work and priorities, and Tuesday’s appearance is unlikely to be an exception.

Earlier in the year

At his January confirmation hearing, Sessions told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that “I did not have communications” with the Russians during the campaign and said he was “unaware” of contacts between others in the campaign and Russia. Yet he recused himself in March from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin after acknowledging two previously undisclosed encounters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

He struck a similar note before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, when he denied knowledge of communications between Russians and Trump campaign officials.

“I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened,” Sessions said under questioning, again from Franken.

But that narrative has been challenged by a pair of recent events, most notably a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, who last month admitted in court to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts. He was part of a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, and the two are among the men in a March 2016 photograph that Trump posted on social media. Charging documents in that case indicate that Papadopoulos told the council “that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the attendees at that meeting, J.D. Gordon, recalled that Sessions quickly “shut him down and said, ‘We’re not going to do that.”’

Gordon has also said that Papadopoulos went around him and Sessions and that they did not know he had continued to try to arrange such a meeting.

Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee advised Sessions in a letter last week that they intended to press him on what they said were “inconsistencies” between the attorney general’s past statements and the new revelations.

“If, as recent reports suggest, you rejected Mr. Papadopoulos’s suggestion that President Trump meet with Vladimir Putin at that March 31 meeting – a fact you appear to have remembered only after Mr. Papadopoulos’s account was made public – it seems likely that you were ‘aware’ of communications between the Russian government and surrogates of the Trump campaign,” the letter states.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment Monday.

Adding to the questions for Sessions was the release by the House Intelligence Committee last week of a transcript of a private interview with Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the campaign who acknowledged that he had contact with a high-level Russian official while on a trip to Russia last year.

Page told the panel he had informed some members of the Trump campaign about the trip, including Sessions. He said he mentioned in passing to Sessions that he was preparing to visit Russia and Sessions “had no reaction whatsoever.”