Facebook Removes Ukraine Political ‘Influence for Hire’ Network

Facebook has taken down a network of hundreds of fake accounts and pages targeting people in Ukraine and linked to individuals previously sanctioned by the United States for efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, the company said Thursday.Facebook said the network managed a long-running deceptive campaign across multiple social media platforms and other websites, posing as independent news outlets and promoting favorable content about Ukrainian politicians, including activity that was likely for hire. The company said it started its probe after a tip from the FBI.Facebook attributed the activity to individuals and entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, including politician Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker who was blacklisted by the U.S. government in September over accusations he tried to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election won by President Joe Biden. Facebook said it removed Derkach’s accounts in October 2020.Derkach told Reuters he would comment on Facebook’s investigation on Friday. Facebook also attributed the network to political consultants associated with Ukrainian politicians Oleh Kulinich and Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s former prime minister. Kulinich did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Groysman could not immediately be reached for comment.Facebook said that as well as promoting these politicians, the network also pushed positive material about actors across the political spectrum, likely as a paid service. It said the activity it investigated began around 2015, was solely focused on Ukraine, and posted anti-Russia content.”You can really think of these operators as would-be influence mercenaries, renting out inauthentic online support in Ukrainian political circles,” Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s global influence operations threat intelligence lead, said on a call with reporters.Facebook’s investigation team said Ukraine, which has been among the top sources of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that it removes from the site, is home to an increasing number of influence operations selling services.Facebook said it removed 363 pages, which were followed by about 2.37 million accounts, and 477 accounts from this network for violating its rules. The network also spent about $496,000 in Facebook and Instagram ads, Facebook said.

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25 Killed in Rio de Janeiro Police Raid on Drug Gang

At least 25 people, including a police officer, were killed in a shootout on Thursday during an operation against drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarezinho slum, police said. Suspects tried to escape across rooftops as police entered the slum in armored vehicles and helicopters flew overhead, television images showed. The intense firefight kept residents in their homes. Three policemen were hit and one died of a head wound in the hospital, police said. Bullets fired during the shootout struck a light rail coach and two passengers were hurt by shattered glass from the broken window, the fire brigade said. Policemen take position during an operation against drug dealers in Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 6, 2021.It was the deadliest single police operation in the state of Rio de Janeiro, which has suffered for decades from drug violence in its poor neighborhoods known as favelas. “This is the largest number of deaths in a police operation in Rio, surpassing 19 at Complexo do Alemão slum in 2007, except we did not lose one of ours in that action,” police chief Ronaldo Oliveira told Reuters. Police said that among the dead in Jacarezinho were leaders of the drug trafficking gang that dominated life in the slum. At least 10 suspects were arrested, they said. Besides drug trafficking, the gang robbed trucks of their cargo and had hijacked commuter trains earlier this year to steal from passengers. 
 

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Johnson, Merkel Urge Economic Powers to Pledge Toward Climate Change

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the world’s economic powers Thursday not to shy away from serious investments in combating climate change.
 
Merkel hosted the 2021 Petersburg Climate Dialogue, an online conference designed to drive international action on global warming and encourage nations and their leaders to focus on the U.N. Climate Change Conference later this year in Glasgow, Scotland.
 
In her comments, Merkel said she realized the COVID-19 pandemic has “torn insane budget holes” for the world’s industrialized countries. But she said they should not compensate for that by spending less on development aid and climate protection.
 
Johnson echoed that theme, saying the world’s wealthiest nations must meet their commitments to a $100 billion fund meant to help developing nations deal with climate change. He said it is up to wealthy countries to take action, as it is the developing world that feels the worst effects from the warming climate.  
 
Johnson said he will use the meeting with the leading industrial nations hosted by Britain next month to promote the U.N.-backed climate goals.  
 
All G-7 countries have now set targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero emissions — taking out as much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as are put in — by 2050 at the latest.   
 
Scientists say faster cuts are needed to prevent warming that leads to increased drought, rising sea levels and other potentially disastrous effects.

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Netflix Series Signals Racial Breakthrough in Italian TV

The Netflix series “Zero,” which premiered globally last month, is the first Italian TV production to feature a predominantly Black cast, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak Italian television landscape where the persistent use of racist language and imagery is sparking new protests.  
Even as “Zero” creates a breakthrough in Italian TV history, on private networks, comedy teams are asserting their right to use racial slurs and make slanty-eye gestures as satire. The main state broadcaster RAI is under fire for attempting to censor an Italian rapper’s remarks highlighting homophobia in a right-wing political party. And under outside pressure, RAI is advising against — but not outright banning — the use of blackface in variety skits.  
With cultural tensions heightened, the protagonists of “Zero” hope the series — which focuses on second-generation Black Italians and is based on a novel by the son of Angolan immigrants — will help accelerate public acceptance that Italy has become a multicultural nation.  
“I always say that Italy is a country tied to traditions, more than racist,” said Antonio Dikele Distefano, who co-wrote the series and whose six novels, including the one on which “Zero” was based, focus on the lives of the children of immigrants to Italy.  
“I am convinced that through these things — writing novels, the possibility of making a series — things can change,” he said.
“Zero” is a radical departure because it provides role models for young Black Italians who have not seen themselves reflected in the culture, and because it creates a window to changes in Italian society that swaths of the majority population have not acknowledged.  
Activists fighting racism in Italian television underline the fact that it was developed by Netflix, based in the United States and with a commitment to spend $100 million to improve diversity, and not by Italian public or private television.  
“As a Black Italian, I never saw myself represented in Italian television. Or rather, I saw examples of how Black women were hyper-sexualized,” said Sara Lemlem, an activist and journalist who is part of a group of second-generation Italians protesting racist tropes on Italian TV. “There was never a Black woman in a role of an everyday woman: a Black student, a Black nurse, a Black teacher. I never saw myself represented in the country in which I was born and raised.”
“Zero,” which premiered on April 21, landed immediately among the top 10 shows streaming on Netflix in Italy.  
Perhaps even more telling of its impact: The lead actor, Giuseppe Dave Seke, was mobbed not even a week later by Italian schoolchildren clamoring for autographs as he gave an interview in the Milan neighborhood where the series is set. Seke, a 25-year-old who grew up in Padova to parents from Congo, is not a household name in Italy. “Zero” was his first foray into acting.
“If you ask these children who is in front of them, they will never tell you: the first Black Italian actor. They will tell you, ‘a superhero,’ or they will tell you, ‘Dave’,” Dikele Distefano said, watching the scene in awe.  
In the series, Zero is the nickname of a Black Italian pizza bike deliveryman who discovers he has a superpower that allows him to become invisible. He uses it to help his friends in a mixed-race Milan neighborhood.  
It’s a direct play on the notion of invisibility that was behind the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Italian squares last summer following George Floyd’s murder in the United States. Black Italians rallied for changes in the country’s citizenship law and to be recognized as part of a society where they too often feel marginalized.  
“When a young person doesn’t feel seen, he feels a bit invisible,” Seke said. “Hopefully this series can help those people who felt like me or like Antonio. … There can be many people who have not found someone similar to themselves, and live still with this distress.”
The protest movement has shifted from targeting Italian fashion, where racist gaffes have highlighted the lack of Black creative workers, to Italian television, where a movement dubbing itself CambieRAI held protests last month demanding that Italian state and private TV stop using racist language and blackface in skits.  
CambieRAI plays upon the name of Italian state TV, RAI, and the Italian language command “you will change.” The movement, bringing together second-generation Italians from a range of associations, also wants RAI — which is funded by mandatory annual fees on anyone owning a TV in Italy — to set up an advisory council on diversity and inclusion.
Last week RAI last responded to an earlier request by other, longer-established groups asking that it stop broadcasting shows using blackface, citing skits where performers darkened their skin to impersonate singers like Beyonce or Ghali, an Italian rapper of Tunisian descent.  
“We said we were sorry, and we made a formal commitment to inform all of our editors to ask that they don’t use blackface anymore,” Giovanni Parapini, RAI’s director for social causes, told The Associated Press. He said that was as far as they could go due to editorial freedom.  
The associations said they viewed the commitment as positive, even if it fell short of a sought-for ban, since RAI at least recognized that the use of blackface was a problem.
Parapini, however, said the public network did not accept the criticism of the CambieRAI group “because that would mean that RAI in all these years did nothing for integration.”
He noted that the network had never been called out by regulators and listed programming that included minorities, from a Gambia-born sportscaster known as Idris in the 1990s to plans for a televised festival in July featuring second-generation Italians.  
Dikele Distefano said for him the goal is not to banish racist language, calling it “a lost battle.” He sees his art as an agent for change.  
He is working on a film now where he aims to have a 70% second-generation Italian cast and crew. “Zero” has already helped create positions in the industry for a Black hairstylist, a Black screenwriter and a director of Arab and Italian origin, he noted.
“The battle is to live in a place where we all have the same opportunity, where there are more writers who are Black, Asian, South American, where there is the possibility to tell the stories from the point of view of those who live it,” he said. 

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EU Chief Ready to Discuss Vaccine Ownership

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday the European Union (EU) is willing to discuss a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, one day after U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration indicated it would support it.
 
In a virtual speech, the head of the EU executive branch said the EU is “ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”  
 
In a statement Wednesday, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the decision, saying “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
 
Waiving vaccine patents was among Biden’s campaign promises, and he had been under pressure to follow through.  
 
In her speech, Von der Leyen said the pandemic was a global health crisis “and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”
 
The European Union, Britain, Switzerland and some other European countries — many of them home to large pharmaceutical companies — have opposed the waiver. They argue it would undermine incentives for companies that have produced vaccines in record time to do so in a future pandemic.  
 
South Africa and India made the initial vaccine waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization in October, gathering support from many developing countries that say it is a vital step to make vaccines more widely available.

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Blinken Visits Ukraine Amid Tensions with Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Ukraine for meetings Thursday with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “This will be an important opportunity to discuss continued Russian aggression and to underscore the need for maintaining both the pace of and focus on reforms with our Ukrainian partners,” Blinken tweeted after arriving in Kyiv. Late last month, senior U.S. and European Union officials said roughly 150,000 Russian troops massed along the border of Ukraine and in Crimea.  Blinken is expected to restate that the United States will not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and to call for its return to Ukraine.  He will also call on Russia to uphold its commitments under the Minsk agreements to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Donbas. The State Department said Blinken will also encourage institutional reforms in Ukraine, which the State Department called “key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic future.”  Blinken will likely underscore the importance of U.S. economic support for Ukraine.     “Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine more than $4.6 billion in total assistance, including security and non-security assistance,” according to the State Department. 

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Rome Jury Convicts 2 US Youths in Slaying of Police Officer

A jury in Rome on Wednesday convicted two American friends in the 2019 slaying of a police officer in a tragic unraveling of a small-time drug deal gone bad, sentencing them to life in prison. The jury deliberated more than 12 hours before delivering the verdicts against Finnegan Lee Elder, 21, and Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, 20, handing them Italy’s stiffest sentence. Elder and Natale-Hjorth were indicted on charges of homicide, attempted extortion, assault, resisting a public official and carrying an attack-style knife without just cause. They were found guilty of all counts.  The slain officer’s widow, who held a photo of her dead husband while waiting for the verdict, sobbed and hugged his brother, Paolo. The defendants were led immediately out of the courtroom after the verdicts had been read. As Elder was being walked out, his father, Ethan Elder, called out, “Finnegan, I love you.” Prosecutors alleged that Elder stabbed Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega 11 times with a knife that 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, killing of the officer from the storied Carabinieri paramilitary police corps shocked Italy. Cerciello Rega, 35, was mourned as a national hero. His widow, brother and partner were in the courtroom as the jury went into deliberations.  The two Californians were allowed out of steel-barred defendant cages inside the courtroom to sit with their lawyers before the case went to the jury, which consisted of the presiding judge, Marina Finiti, a second judge and six civilian jurors. “I’m stressed,” Elder said to one of his lawyers. Just before the brief court appearance, Elder took a crucifix he wears on a chain around his neck and kissed it. He also turned to his co-defendant, Natale-Hjorth, and held out the crucifix toward him through a glass partition, motioning heavenward.  Elder was joined in the courtroom by his parents. He and his father crossed their fingers toward each other for good luck after the jury went to deliberate. Natale-Hjorth was greeted by his Italian uncle, who lives in Italy.Gabriel Natale-Hjorth, center, is escorted by police officers during the trial for the slaying of an Italian plainclothes police officer, in Rome, May 5, 2021.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.  Prosecution’s case Prosecutors contend the young Americans concocted a plot involving a stolen bag and cellphone after their failed attempt to buy cocaine with 80 euros ($96) in Rome’s Trastevere nightlife district. 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. Prosecutor Maria Sabina Calabretta has demanded life imprisonment for both defendants.  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. At the time of the slaying, Elder was 19 and traveling through Europe without his family, while Natale-Hjorth, then 18, was spending the summer vacation with his Italian grandparents, who live near Rome. Former schoolmates 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.  Prosecutors alleged that Elder thrust a 7-inch (18-centimeter) military-style attack knife repeatedly into Cerciello Rega, who bled profusely, like a “fountain,” Varriale had testified, and died shortly after in hospital.  Elder told the court that during the scuffle, the heavyset Cerciello Rega was on top of him on the ground, and Elder feared that he was being strangled. Elder said he pulled out the knife and stabbed him to avoid being killed, and when the officer didn’t immediately let him go, he stabbed again. After the stabbing, the Americans ran to their hotel room, where, according to Natale-Hjorth, Elder cleaned the knife and then asked him to hide it. Natale-Hjorth testified that he hid the knife behind a ceiling panel in their room, where police discovered it hours later. The drug deal The defendants had told the court that several hours before the stabbing, they attempted to buy cocaine in the Trastevere district. With the intervention of a go-between, they paid a dealer, but instead of cocaine, they received an aspirinlike tablet.  Before Natale-Hjorth could confront the dealer, a separate Carabinieri patrol in the neighborhood intervened, and all scattered. The Americans snatched the go-between’s knapsack in reprisal and used a cellphone inside to set up a meeting with the goal of exchanging the bag and the phone for the cash they had lost in the bad drug deal.  Meanwhile, Cerciello Rega, wearing a T-shirt and long shorts, and Varriale, in a polo shirt and jeans, headed out to follow up on what was described as a small-scale extortion attempt. They didn’t carry their service pistols.  From practically its start, the trial largely boiled down to the word of Varriale against that of the young American visitors. The victim’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, would sit in the front row, often clutching a photo of her husband. Photos of the newlyweds, with Cerciello Rega in his dress uniform after their wedding, were widely displayed in Italian media after the slaying. As the trial neared its end, one of Elder’s defense lawyers, Renato Borzone, argued in court that deep-set psychiatric problems, including a constant fear of being attacked, figured in the fatal stabbing. Borzone told the court his client saw a world filled with enemies due to psychiatric problems and that something “short-circuited” when Elder was confronted by the officer. 

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Biden Offers Condolences, Help in Wake of Mexico City Accident

President Joe Biden has offered condolences and pledged U.S. assistance following the collapse of a rail overpass in Mexico City that left at least 24 dead.”We send our deepest condolences to all those who lost a loved one and offer our best wishes for the recovery of all those who were injured. As neighbors and partners, our nations are closely linked, and the United States is ready to assist Mexico as it rebuilds from this tragedy,” said Biden in a statement released Wednesday by the White House.More than 60 people were injured and at least 24 died when the Mexico City subway train overpass collapsed Monday night onto a busy road, with hanging carriages crushing cars below it.The accident occurred on Line 12 near the Olivos station in the southeast of the city about 10:30 p.m. local time.Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said at the scene that a “support beam gave way” just as the train passed over it.Sheinbaum confirmed Tuesday that federal justice experts would be assisting the city with an investigation to “discover exactly what happened and what the causes” were.”We need experts from federal justice as well as an external and unbiased team to conduct the investigation and all the reports that need to be done and get to the truth,” she said.She added that a “Norwegian company will be in charge of the external investigation.”Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his regular news conference Tuesday that the investigation should be done quickly and that nothing would be hidden from the Mexican people.The Metro 12 line that runs over the now-collapsed overpass was built almost a decade ago.

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Blinken Set to Arrive in Ukraine Amid Tensions With Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in Kyiv, Ukraine, where on Thursday he’s scheduled to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba.
 
According to a State Department news release, Blinken will “underscore unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.”
 
“The United States is deeply concerned about Russia’s ongoing aggressive actions and rhetoric targeting Ukraine, including the increased Russian troop presence in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders,” the news release said.
 
It added that the U.S. “continues to monitor the situation closely.”
 
Late last month, senior American and European Union officials said roughly 150,000 Russian troops massed along the border of Ukraine and in Crimea.
 
Blinken is expected to restate that the U.S will not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. He was expected to call for its return to Ukraine.
 
He will also call on Russia to uphold its commitments under the Minsk agreements to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Donbas.
 
The State Department said Blinken will also encourage institutional reforms in Ukraine, which the State Department called “key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and Euro-Atlantic future.”
 
Blinken will likely underscore the importance of American economic support for Ukraine.
 
“Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine more than $4.6 billion in total assistance, including security and non-security assistance,” according to the State Department.
 

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