Woman in Netherlands says she leaked secret Chinese documents on Uighur re-education camps

4 0 07 Dec 2019

A middle-aged Uighur woman living in the Netherlands told a Dutch paper in a story published Saturday that she was a source who leaked secret Chinese documents detailing the operations of China’s Uighur “re-education” camps, and she now fears for her safety.

The documents were the foundation of stories last month by NBC News and more than 75 journalists in 14 countries around the world probing the inner workings of the centers.

Click here for the original NBC News report on Uighur detention camps in China.

While China has claimed Uighurs enter the camps voluntarily, the documents detail the rounding up of Muslims and the prison-like conditions in which they are held in the Western China province of Xinjiang.

Asiye Abdulaheb, 46, told the daily newspaper de Volksrant, based in Amsterdam, that she received the secret Chinese government documents this summer from unnamed sources, stored them on her laptop, and then worked to share them with the outside world.

NBC News joined the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which obtained the internal memos and bulletins, together with 17 news organizations around the world, to report on the cache.

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For at least the last three years, Chinese authorities have been rounding up Uighurs, and outside experts estimate at least 1 million have been subjected to detention. After repeated denials, Chinese authorities began acknowledging the existence of the camps last year, but portrayed them as vocational training centers that help thwart terrorism.

Asiye Abdulaheb told the Dutch paper de Volksrant that she leaked secret Chinese documents about “re-education” camps for Uighurs and now fears for her Volkskrant

The leaked cache memo — dated 2017 when internments gained momentum — detailed how the camps are designed to be run, from the banality of monitoring bathroom breaks to documenting how China’s high-tech surveillance system is used to identify Uighurs for “re-education.”

Experts described the leak as an extraordinary breach in a country known for crushing dissent.

Death threats

For her efforts, Abdulaheb said she now faces death threats.

She told the Dutch newspaper that one threat said, “You will end up in pieces in the black Kliko in your front yard.” A Kliko refers to the Dutch name for outdoor trash bins on wheels.

“I need protection,” she told the newspaper.

Abdulaheb said she shared the secret Chinese documents with noted Uighur expert Adrian Zenz, a German academic now living in the U.S.

Zenz said he reached out to her after she tweeted one page of the documents, and that she then provided him with the rest.

According to Zenz, he and a second expert authenticated the documents.

Zenz told NBC News he did not give ICIJ the documents, and ICIJ declined to name its source for the cache.

Abdulaheb and her ex-husband approached Dutch reporters in a bid to seek safety from these threats through publicity. She did not name who passed along the documents to her.

A police officer stands by the road near what is officially called a vocational education center in Yining in Xinjiang, China, on Sept. 4, 2018.Thomas Peter / Reuters

Since publication of the stories, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill calling on the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials responsible for mass detentions and other human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

The investigation revealed details of what Western governments have called one of the greatest human-rights catastrophes of modern times, but previously known largely through former detainees’ personal accounts, satellite photographs and orchestrated tours of select camps.

The Chinese Embassy in the UK, in a written response to reporters about the leak, said the “so-called documents are pure fabrication and fake news.” The statement said: “First, there are no so-called ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang. Vocational education and training centers have been established for the prevention of terrorism.”

Ruiz-Joshua title fight raises fears of Saudi Arabia sportswashing human rights record

7 0 07 Dec 2019

Anthony Joshua’s status as boxing’s rising star might not be the only reputation on the line in Saudi Arabia this weekend.

British fighter Joshua is seeking to reclaim three heavyweight titles from Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr., who stunned the sporting world with his seventh round victory at Madison Square Garden in June.

But Saturday’s much-anticipated world heavyweight title fight is facing criticism from human rights groups who have accused the host country of attempting to hide its record behind the prestige of the sporting glamour event.

The fight is the first of its kind to take place in the Middle East, but rights groups have called the event an attempt to “sportswash” the country’s image on the world stage.

Mexican-American heavyweight boxing champion Andy Ruiz Jr and British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua pose during the official weigh-in in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP – Getty Images

Amnesty International encouraged athletes to use the hype around the event to shed light on the abuses.

But Joshua did not appear to heed the call, saying he was “comfortable” with fighting in the kingdom.

“All I’m here to do is box,” Joshua told The Associated Press ahead of the fight, which will reportedly see him pocket $70 million.

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“It’s a massive opportunity,” he said. “Boxers need opportunities. Every sport and every business needs global opportunity. It ticks a box for business, but also tourists and sports.”

NBC News has reached out to Saudi Arabia for comment.

The regime has leaned heavily on sports and entertainment as it seeks to improve its image in the wake of widespread revulsion and condemnation following the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

“We have a plan to change the social scene within the kingdom towards what is right, and sport is one of the fields within the 2030 vision that is achieving that goal,” Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, chairman of the General Sports Authority, told the BBC ahead of the fight.

“We’re using sport to invite anyone who wants to see what it really is like here and to showcase the country.”

The fight is set to get underway at around 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday.ANDREW COULDRIDGE / Reuters

Saturday’s fight headlined a month-long set of events called “Diriyah Season” that started Nov. 22 with a Formula E race and will continue with an eight-man tennis tournament.

International recording artists have performed throughout the month.

The reclusive kingdom also introduced a new tourist visa scheme in September to attract foreign visitors.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a series of reforms since assuming power in June 2017, allowing women to drive and attend public performances including sporting events in an effort to reshape how the world views the kingdom.

President Donald Trump’s administration has strengthened its alliance with the powerful young royal, who has presented himself as a reformer eager to transform the deeply conservative society.

But the progressive changes have masked a broader crackdown, according to rights groups.

The crown prince said earlier this year that while he takes full responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder as the country’s leader, he did not order his killing. The CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies have concluded otherwise.

“Despite the hype over supposed reforms, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a sweeping human rights crackdown, with women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority community all being targeted,” said Felix Jakens, head of campaigns for Amnesty International U.K.

Human Rights Watch said that while the country’s “newfound enthusiasm” for sports will force it to increasingly adhere to international human rights standards, abuses remain.

“Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world,” said Minky Worden, the group’s director of global initiatives.

Why moderates are keeping their powder dry on impeachment

8 0 07 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON — Like many of the 31 Democrats from districts President Donald Trump won in 2016, freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., is feeling the squeeze of impeachment.

A former CIA, Pentagon and National Security Council before winning election to the House last year, Slotkin helped launch the House inquiry into President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal by co-writing an opinion column calling for a probe after an intelligence community whistleblower accused the president of abusing his office.

But now, as the House Judiciary Committee drafts articles of impeachment and Democrats from politically competitive districts wait to see how they are written, Slotkin is being lobbied by Republican colleagues who argue that Trump’s actions — even if imperfect — don’t amount to impeachable offenses and that she should accept, given her background, that the president needs room to use leverage in foreign policy.

Rep. Slotkin is among those being lobbied by Republican colleagues who argue that Trump’s actions don’t amount to impeachable offenses.Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images file

“I feel very strongly that in my prior life we often went to other countries and foreign governments when I was at the Pentagon and said, ‘We want you to do X in exchange for Y,’ but that exchange was exclusively for the national security interests of the country, not for Elissa Slotkin’s personal or political gain,” said Slotkin, who hasn’t committed one way or the other on impeachment. “And that’s a pretty fundamental difference and that was the conversation I had with one of my peers.”

While the GOP push hasn’t been persuasive, moderate Democrats are worried that liberals in their own party are going to put forward articles of impeachment that are hard to vote for and even harder to explain voting for.

“There are serious implications for members of Congress if the members are not able to effectively communicate why this is so important and this is critical,” said Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist who works with moderate lawmakers and candidates. “It’s not political and that’s the difficult thing. Messaging isn’t always political. It’s communicating to your constituents why you voted one way or another for a principled reason.”

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In other words, some of the moderates are willing to cast tough votes to impeach Trump, but they’d rather do it on articles of impeachment that don’t include clauses they view as less-solid.

So far, Democrats have been hindered in delivering a clear, strong and consistent message within their caucus and to the public in part because they remain divided over which charges to levy at Trump.

Democrats in politically difficult districts tend to favor writing charges that most closely hew to the Ukraine affair and might be most easy to explain to voters while lawmakers from more solidly Democratic turf are feeling more adventurous and tend to want to reach out toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and other matters.

Moreover, according to sources who speak with centrist Democrats, there has been frustration with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., over what is seen as a close-to-the-vest process for developing articles of impeachment. But it’s ultimately Pelosi, who initiated a more formal process Thursday, who is running the show.

“Judiciary’s not really reaching out to the people” whose political fates could rest on their impeachment votes, said one senior Democratic aide close to party moderates. “There are 31 Democrats who are going to have to live breathe and die this vote for the next year.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, seemed to play down that divide in an interview on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Friday, suggesting that her own panel would not wield as much power as it might appear to.

“I think the drafting of articles will be a collaborative effort,” said Lofgren, who is a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Really, all the members will be collaborating, and that decision will be made not just by the Judiciary Committee but in a collaborative way across our caucus.”

Similarly, she took up for the more-cautious approach in terms of the thrust of the articles.

“I think a narrowly focused matter relative to the material being reported to us from the Intel Committee is probably the most timely article to adopt, but we, as I say, will be listening to each other,” she said.

Meanwhile Republican-aligned outside groups like the American Action Network have been trying to influence Democratic lawmakers by running ads and conducting polling in their districts. So far, that doesn’t appear to have had any effect on votes in Congress. But the aim is clearly to either scare the incumbents away from impeaching Trump or to soften their support in the 2020 election.

House Democratic officials say they are confident that no matter what form and number the articles of impeachment ultimately take, they will be able to win a majority vote to impeach the president on at least one of them. But for now — with less than two weeks left before they plan to put impeachment on the House floor — there’s still a lot of work to be done to get their caucus comfortable with articles that have not yet been rolled out.

One Slotkin donor who contributed to her 2018 campaign after they got to know each other in Washington’s national security circles told NBC News that it makes sense for her not to commit her vote early publicly.

“She’s been careful and conscientious about the process,” said the donor. “It’s no surprise that she’s continuing to do that now by keeping her powder dry and waiting to see the articles of impeachment before she decides how she’s going to vote on them.”

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Elon Musk did not defame British caver with pedo guy tweet, jury finds

7 0 07 Dec 2019

Elon Musk did not defame a British cave explorer when he called him “pedo guy” in an angry tweet, a Los Angeles jury found Friday.

Vernon Unsworth, who participated in the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped for weeks in a Thailand cave last year, had angered the Tesla CEO by belittling his effort to help with the rescue as a “PR stunt.”

Musk said the attack was unprovoked and he only meant the term as an insult for “creepy old man” and wasn’t literally calling Unsworth a pedophile.

Unsworth’s attorney suggested to a federal jury Friday that it award $190 million in damages to a British cave explorer who is suing Elon Musk for allegedly branding him as a pedophile during a Twitter spat.

Attorney Lin Wood said the suggested award would include $150 million as a “hard slap on the wrist” to punish Tesla CEO for what he said was akin to dropping an atomic weapon on his client.

“What in the world would it take to discourage Elon Musk from ever planting a nuclear bomb in the life of another person?” Wood said.

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Musk, who testified his stock in Tesla and SpaceX is worth about $20 billion, contends that he was not literally calling Vernon Unsworth a pedophile when he referred to him as “pedo guy” on Twitter.

Musk’s lawyer told the jury the tweet was an insult provoked by Unsworth and did not rise to the level of defamation. Attorney Alex Spiro said Unsworth also failed to show actual damages.

A jury of five women and three men deliberated for less than an hour in the afternoon in U.S. District Court.

Unsworth had ridiculed Musk’s effort to help in the rescue by having engineers at his companies, including Space X and The Boring Co., develop a mini-submarine to transport the boys. Despite working around the clock to build the sub, Musk arrived in Thailand late in the rescue effort and the craft was never used.

Unsworth called it nothing more than a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick the sub “where it hurts.”

In his closing argument, Wood called Musk a “billionaire bully” who lied when he claimed “pedo guy” only means “creepy old man” and said his apologies to Unsworth were insincere.

“When Elon Musk tweets something it goes around the world,” Wood said. “It can never be deleted.”

Unsworth testified that he had to sue Musk for defamation because if he didn’t, the allegation would seem true.

In his testimony, Musk insisted that the phrase he tweeted off-the-cuff “was obviously a flippant insult, and no one interpreted it to mean pedophile.”

Spiro mocked Unsworth’s claims that he had been shamed and humiliated and that the tweet effectively sentenced him to a life sentence without parole.

Spiro noted that Unsworth had been honored by the queen of England and the king of Thailand, had his photo taken next to British Prime Minister Theresa May and been asked to speak at schools and contribute to a children’s book, which showed that no one took Musk’s insult seriously.

“People accused of pedophilia don’t get celebrated by world leaders,” Spiro said. “Kings and queens and prime ministers don’t stand next to pedophiles.”

Rapid DNA testing could revolutionize rape investigations ─ if the science holds up

7 0 07 Dec 2019

Early one morning in April, a homeless woman sleeping in an abandoned house in Louisville, Kentucky, was jolted awake by a stranger who pulled her bedding over her head and raped her, according to police.

The 29-year-old woman was taken to the University of Louisville Hospital, where nurses examined her for traces of DNA that could identify her assailant.

Such answers in rape cases typically take months, and sometimes more than a year — delays that can be traumatic for victims and diminish the odds of anyone getting prosecuted.

But the alleged attack occurred while the Kentucky State Police laboratory was evaluating a new “rapid DNA” instrument, which is marketed as a way to identify suspected rapists in hours, while victims are still being treated. If the technology works, it could revolutionize the way rapes are investigated in America, where hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits remain untested and only a third of reported rapes result in an arrest.

As part of the first real-world test of the technology on sex assault cases, hospital nurses in the Louisville case took extra samples from the alleged victim and ran them through rapid DNA equipment. The device developed a DNA profile of a potential suspect in three hours. Within weeks, a man was under arrest.

The case, still pending trial, reflects the power and the potential of rapid DNA testing as it slowly spreads through the criminal justice system. That growth, driven by two competing companies, has unfolded with little government oversight: While the FBI urges caution, and judges have not yet allowed rapid DNA evidence to be presented at trial, the manufacturers have pitched the technology directly to local agencies. Police have used rapid DNA in ways that push the boundaries of standard law enforcement practice, to analyze crime scene evidence and take DNA samples from people suspected of low-level crimes.

That approach has concerned privacy advocates, criminal defense lawyers and some crime laboratory officials, who warn that the unregulated technology remains at risk of mistakes and abuse. These critics caution that the technique is still new and may not deliver the clear results that the companies claim. That is particularly a concern in rape cases, which are complex because they involve mixtures of multiple people’s DNA.

Terri Rosenblatt, who supervises the DNA unit at the Legal Aid Society in New York, said the instruments haven’t been proven reliable on such mixtures. Errors, she said, could lead to false hits, which could make it hard for suspects to overcome a presumption of guilt.

“This blunt-force instrument that is designed to get results fast, especially with sexual assaults, is problematic,” she said.

Proponents of the technology say early tests show it’s working, and critics and government bureaucrats are too slow to embrace rapid DNA, which could one day replace traditional DNA analysis.

“Rapid DNA is a new and disruptive technology,” said James Davis, a former FBI agent who is the chief federal officer for ANDE, one of the two companies marketing rapid DNA to law enforcement. ANDE worked with Kentucky police to test the technology on sexual assault cases, including the one in Louisville. “I think in time, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a long period,” Davis said, “it will be accepted as the standard.”

ANDE’s competitor, Thermo Fisher Scientific, has not marketed its instruments for use on sexual assault kits, according to crime laboratory officials who have negotiated with the company. Thermo Fisher did not respond to requests for comment.

The mixture problem

For American law enforcement, rapid DNA’s appeal is its path around the monthslong backlogs that plague crime laboratories.

The rapid DNA instruments, which cost up to $250,000 and are about the size of a large microwave oven, are designed to be operated by someone without technical expertise. The instruments automate the painstaking, complicated process of analyzing DNA the traditional way.

In the conventional method, trained laboratory analysts extract DNA from a sample, measure how much there is, make copies of it and then run it through an instrument that produces a unique string of numbers. That code is the person’s DNA profile.

ANDE’s Rapid DNA Identification System.ANDE Corp

Those steps take hours to complete and require the use of instruments across several rooms of a laboratory. Rapid DNA packs it all into one step: A scientist ─ or crime scene technician, or police officer, or anyone, really ─ places the sample on a disposable “chip,” and puts it into the box. In less than two hours, the instrument produces a DNA profile.

The technology performs best in straightforward situations, involving DNA from a single person, law enforcement officials say. Rapid DNA has been used to identify victims of natural disasters, including the 2018 Camp Fire in California. The FBI is also exploring whether it can use the technology to produce DNA fingerprints while getting booked into jail, a test underway at police booking stations in Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

The booking station model is relatively simple compared to testing evidence from crime scenes, which can include mixtures of DNA left behind by suspects but also by people who had nothing to do with the crime. Identifying a suspect in such samples requires additional processing and interpretation by trained crime laboratory scientists, sometimes with the help of machine-learning algorithms, experts say.

Rapid DNA instruments aren’t considered advanced enough to perform this added work. That is why the FBI doesn’t allow rapid DNA results on crime scene samples — which include sexual assault kits — to be added to its national index of criminal databases, known as Codis. The FBI has “task groups” watching how local and state law enforcement agencies use rapid DNA on crime scene evidence, and how the technology improves.

Even if rapid DNA helps solve a crime, potentially taking an attacker off the streets more quickly, its results alone cannot be used to convict someone. Law enforcement officials and defense attorneys said they do not know of any attempts to get a judge to approve rapid DNA results as acceptable evidence at trial, although ANDE said it is working with prosecutors to try it on a low-level case, such as a burglary. Until then, police must also run samples through traditional DNA analysis to prove the match.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office, one of the first agencies to use rapid DNA on crime scene evidence, limits the technology to samples with high levels of single-source DNA, such as saliva on cigarette butts or blood on a broken window, said Robert Mestman, a prosecutor in the office’s science and technology unit. It uses an instrument made by Intergenx, now owned by biotechnology giant Thermo Fisher Scientific, the other company besides ANDE that is marketing rapid DNA in the United States. Since 2015, rapid DNA has led to 80 convictions in the county in crimes ranging from murder to burglary.

But not any sexual assaults.

“Sex assault kits are classic mixture scenarios,” Mestman said. “Based on our experience, mixtures are too complex for rapid instruments to handle. So we send those to the crime lab.”

The Arizona Department of Public Safety uses rapid DNA in a similar manner, and it, too, does not apply it to sex assaults, Vincent Figarelli, who runs the agency’s crime laboratory, said.

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“The issue with sex assault is that pretty much every case is a mixture,” Figarelli said. He also said that no study showing the accuracy of rapid DNA on sexual assault kits has been published yet in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

ANDE, a private Colorado-based company, believes that it has found a way to analyze the kits.

While a study by independent laboratories concluded that ANDE’s instrument met FBI standards to produce DNA profiles of arrestees in booking stations, the company said there is no such published research on its instrument’s use on sexual assault kits. But it has made sex assaults a key piece of its marketing ─ and sees the Kentucky project as validation.

Davis said he was confident that ANDE’s technology would one day save government agencies millions of dollars by allowing authorities to mow through the country’s massive accumulation of untested sexual assault kits.

“Rapid DNA without question will reduce the sexual assault kit backlog an hopefullly do away with it,” Davis said.

‘This is all about trying to do the right thing’

When ANDE first pitched rapid DNA as an investigative tool for sex assaults in Kentucky, officials were intrigued but dubious.

The state had implemented reforms and spent millions of dollars to reduce its backlog of untested rape kits. But the wait for new kits still lasted about 10 months.

That was untenable: The longer victims wait for news on their cases, the more likely they are to assume no one believes them, advocates say. If the investigation moves quickly, victims remain more engaged ─ which improves the odds of successfully prosecuting their attackers.

ANDE offered a solution. In a meeting at the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet in Frankfort in February 2017, ANDE representatives outlined their vision, which had never been tried before in the U.S.: by putting a rapid DNA instrument in a hospital, evidence from sex assault kits could be processed immediately.

The Kentucky officials were skeptical, because, they said, the ANDE representatives didn’t mention how they’d get around the problem of analyzing DNA mixtures. The company also overstated the FBI’s endorsement of its technology, the officials said. They rejected the pitch.

“There was nothing about that project that made any sense whatsoever,” said Regina Wells, the DNA database supervisor for the Kentucky State Police, which runs the state crime laboratory. “They had not thought that through at all. They were just trying to get people to try it.”

It was not the only time ANDE has been accused of overstepping. The company’s attempt to introduce rape-kit testing in Houston backfired this year after the Texas Forensic Science Commission found out that ANDE had arranged with a local hospital to take extra swabs from rape victims to send in the mail for rapid DNA processing. According to the commission, ANDE had acted without the knowledge of local police, prosecutors or the city’s crime lab, the Houston Forensic Science Center. The commission sent ANDE a letter asking that it stop working on crime-scene samples in the state until the company found an accredited government laboratory to work with.

“There’s real value in this. It could save lives,” Peter Stout, CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center, said. “But how do we do it in a way that protects the rest of the process and doesn’t compromise cases?”

ANDE has said that the Houston Forensic Science Center did know about its activities as they were taking place, contrary to what officials said, and that the company is being held up by laboratory officials who feel threatened by the new technology.

In Kentucky, ANDE did not give up. It admitted its mistakes ─ Davis, ANDE’s chief federal officer, said some sales representatives in early 2017 “were still trying to wrap their head around what we could do” ─ and returned with a stronger pitch in the fall of 2018. The company persuaded authorities there to try out their product.

“We all see ourselves as being the good guys here,” Davis said. “This is all about trying to do the right thing.”

The key to winning Kentucky’s support was ANDE’s effort to solve the mixture problem.

ANDE said it had come up with a process that isolated and extracted sperm cells from sexual assault kits much faster than traditional DNA laboratories. The company had tested the method in its lab but not on sexual assault kits. Kentucky was “the first place where we could validate the science,” Davis recalled.

Wells and her boss, laboratory director Laura Sudkamp, said they weren’t convinced but decided to try out the technology.

“I just wanted to see if I could prove whether it works,” Sudkamp said.

‘That’s the guy’

The result was a pilot involving 100 sexual assault cases handled by the University of Louisville Hospital and a few nearby police departments.

The project began in December 2018 and ended in July. In most of the cases, there wasn’t enough DNA evidence, which isn’t unusual. But in 14 cases, the rapid DNA instrument produced a profile of a suspect that could be compared against the state’s criminal database. Four of those comparisons resulted in hits that were later confirmed by traditional DNA — all cases that are pending.

The case that illustrated rapid DNA’s biggest potential — in the investigation of rapes by strangers — unfolded April 27, when the homeless woman called police to the abandoned house in Louisville.

Without a clear description of the attacker, police had no leads.

“We were nowhere with this case,” said Sgt. Tim Stokes of the Metro Louisville Police Department’s sex crimes unit.

Once the sample collected for the rapid DNA instrument reached the state laboratory, it took about three hours to isolate the sperm and develop a profile, officials said. A search of the state criminal database revealed the match with a man with past drug convictions. On May 9, that was relayed to Louisville police, who obtained a previous mugshot of him.

Louisville detectives immediately began looking for the victim. That search took them to a homeless encampment on the edge of town. A detective showed her the mugshot. “That’s the guy,” she said, according to Stokes.

On June 19, police charged Antonio Short, 22, with first degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed on $500,000 bond while awaiting trial, which is scheduled for March 2020. His lawyer did not comment.

Last month, the traditional DNA test on the rape kit confirmed the rapid DNA instrument’s hit, Sudkamp said.

If police had been forced to wait until November to learn of the match, it would have been harder to connect with the victim and pursue her alleged attacker, Stokes said.

“We wouldn’t have had a suspect in custody,” he said.

Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, said her organization was “very excited about the possibility” of rapid DNA.

“The quicker the resolution, the quicker victims can get on with their lives,” she said. “When nothing happens, I hear victims say, ‘My life is on pause and I’m looking over my shoulder all the time.’ That’s not a good way to live.”

Acceptance and doubts

Sudkamp and Wells describe themselves as cynical and hard to impress, but they now believe in rapid DNA enough to continue working with it. They’ve concluded that while it shouldn’t replace traditional DNA analysis, it’s a viable tool for processing rape kits. They’re sharing their results with other crime laboratories and at conferences, and are looking for funding to expand the use of the technology to other types of crimes.

“This instrument does certain things really well. And that’s what we’re going to focus on,” Wells said. “My skepticism has gone away.”

But Melanie Lowe, general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which runs the state’s public defender system, is not convinced. She said she’s concerned about contamination of samples and is distrustful of a method that hasn’t been proven reliable as courtroom evidence — and that defense lawyers haven’t had a chance to challenge.

“DNA is the most valuable piece of evidence juries are looking for. When you attach that cloak of reliability to a new version of it, I’m going to be skeptical until it’s been peer reviewed and tested. Because my clients’ lives are at stake.”

Rosenblatt, of the Legal Aid Society, said she agrees with police and sexual assault victims’ advocates that it’s important to speed up testing. But she sees rapid DNA as an emerging, unproven technology. A better approach, she said, would be to hire more traditional laboratory analysts and expand services for victims.

“Those issues are real concerns, and law enforcement is right to care about them,” Rosenblatt said. “But using not-ready-for-prime-time forensics isn’t the answer.”

ANDE, meanwhile, is working to develop sexual assault projects in other states, which it wouldn’t name.

“The problem here,” Davis said, “is that we’ve got crimes that we could be solving that we’re not.”

American student Xiyue Wang freed in prisoner swap after three years in Iran jail

5 0 07 Dec 2019

An American graduate student who was held in an Iranian prison for more than three years was finally headed home Saturday after a prisoner swap between the two countries.

Xiyue Wang, 38, was released in Switzerland in exchange for Iranian citizen Masoud Soleimani, who was being held in an Atlanta jail over accusations he violated U.S. sanctions.

“We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran,” said President Donald Trump in a statement confirming the news.

“The highest priority of the United States is the safety and well-being of its citizens. Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter early Saturday ahead of the swap and again after it was confirmed.

Wang is a Chinese-born naturalized American citizen and a fourth-year doctoral student of history at Princeton University.

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He was arrested in August 2016 while carrying out research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty for his Ph.D., according to the university, his wife and the U.S. government.

He was convicted of two counts of espionage in April 2017 and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He had been held in Evin Prison, the Tehran facility that houses most of the country’s political prisoners.

His wife, Qu Hua, had worked with Princeton trying to win his release to no avail. She told NBC News in November 2017 that Wang was struggling with depression in prison.

He was also missing out on watching their son grow up, she said, having last seen the boy when he was only 2 years old.

“My son told his teacher that, ‘When I grow up, my daddy will come home,'” Qu said.

The U.S. had repeatedly called for his release.

Iran released video in November 2017 of Wang allegedly trying to smuggle documents. Then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explicitly denied Wang was working on behalf of any U.S. government agency.

Qu later said she believed Iran knew her husband was a legitimate scholar and was targeted because of his nationality.

“He’s innocent and he is just a student,” she said, adding his arrest was a “sacrifice of the political situation.”

Wang was among at least four other Americans being held by Iran, including Iranian-American father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi, navy veteran Michael White and former FBI agent Robert Levinson.

Wang’s freedom came in exchange for Soleimani, a medical research scientist who was arrested in October 2018. The U.S. accused Soleimani of violating sanctions against Iran by attempting to export biological materials in the form of human growth hormone without authorization.

The swap comes amid growing tensions between Iran and the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf. The Pentagon said on Thursday that the U.S. was formulating plans to potentially deploy more U.S. troops to the Middle East in response to a growing threat from Tehran.

Crushing sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump last year, following the unilateral withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, has left Iran with widespread economic discontent.

More recently, demonstrations have erupted across the country in response to a 50 percent hike in gas prices. U.S. officials, along with human rights groups, said as many as 1,000 Iranians have been killed and thousands more imprisoned since the protests began on Nov. 15.

Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, called the casualty numbers “purely speculative and highly inaccurate,” while adding an investigation into the “disturbances” and “those affected, whether injured or killed” was ongoing.

Trump weighed in on the protests Tuesday, saying in a tweet that “America supports the brave people of Iran who are protesting for their freedom.”

Abigail Williams contributed.

Chris Watts case investigators are still reeling: How does this happen?

5 0 07 Dec 2019

They were tasked with trying to find a missing pregnant Colorado woman and her two young daughters. Days later, they did — the body of Shanann Watts was curled up and buried in a shallow grave and her girls, Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, were submerged in narrow oil tanks.

The investigators who spent months sifting through Chris Watts’ lies before he pleaded guilty to murdering his wife, unborn son and two daughters say they will never be the same again.

“It was just too strange, too baffling for it not to leave a lasting impact in your head about how does this happen?” asked Steve Wrenn, the chief deputy of the Weld County District Attorney’s Office.

In an episode of Oxygen’s “Criminal Confessions” that will air Saturday, several investigators speak of the lasting psychological toll of conducting interviews, scouring through evidence and ultimately discovering the bodies of the two little girls and their doting mother, who was 15 weeks pregnant with a boy whose name would have been Nico.

Shanann Watts, 34, and her daughters.Frederick Police Department

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I’ve investigated or been a part of investigations of over 170 homicides. And I don’t get emotional very often. I’m able to detach myself to a certain degree,” Kirby Lewis, special agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, said. “I was not able to detach myself from this.”

After his family went missing Aug. 13, 2018, Watts told authorities that his wife and daughters had vanished and that he didn’t know where they were.

But it didn’t take long for investigators to discover that Watts was having an affair with a coworker. Then he failed a polygraph test he had agreed to take.

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So investigators pressed. Watts eventually confessed to his father that he had killed Shanann, saying he did it because he had caught her in the act of choking the girls to death.

Watts then directed investigators to where he had dumped the three bodies on the property of Anadarko Petroleum, where he worked. He labeled two oil wells “B” and “C,” for where he had stashed his daughters.

“I was completely disgusted. I felt sick. But I was like, we need to go get them. We need to go get them right now,” CBI Agent Tammy Lee, who had interviewed Watts, said. “I knew everyone’s lives were going to be changed from that moment on.”

“The first tank was the one that had CeCe in it, she was still in her nightgown … the second tank had Bella inside,” Lee said. “I can’t get that image out of my head.”

“Looking at those oil tanks and seeing the size of the hatch at the top and then to have to pull them out of that oil, I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy,” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said.

After finding the bodies, prosecutors and investigators were preparing for a yearslong murder case.

But on Nov. 6, 2018, Watts pleaded guilty to all nine counts against him — including five counts of first-degree murder. He is serving three life sentences, as well as 48 years for the unlawful termination of pregnancy.

“While we got some satisfaction that he would never have the opportunity to hurt anyone else again … we all struggled with the fact that we did not know what the truth was,” Lee said.

So Lee and an FBI agent flew to Wisconsin, where Watts was imprisoned, to hear the truth from a man who had nothing left to lose.

According to notes and audio files from that February interview, Watts revealed that Bella had walked into the bedroom after he had strangled Shanann and asked: “What are you doing with Mommy.”

He then loaded the girls and his wife’s body in his truck and drove them 45 minutes to Andarko. At one point, Bella complained of the smell, Watts said.

“We had never — nobody had ever contemplated that the girls were alive when he drove them out to the oil site,” Wrenn said.

When he got there, he first killed Celeste prompting Bella to ask him, “Is the same thing gonna happen to me as CeCe,” Watts told investigators.

He said the last words Bella spoke as he killed her were: “Daddy, No!”

Rourke said, “the interview that he gave is worse than any of us could have possibly imagined.”

“You know, a lot of people ask me, ‘Ddo you believe him?’ ‘Do you believe that final version was the truth?’ And I have to say ‘yes’ because it was more horrible than I had ever let my mind go to” Lee said. “This was a complete act of evil by Chris Watts.”

Trumps new SNAP rules threaten a food stamps program that is an American success story

5 0 07 Dec 2019

On Wednesday, the Trump administration instituted a policy that would lead to hundreds of thousands of people losing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This represents a frustrating setback for a program which has, up until now, enjoyed bipartisan support.

SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is an American success story. It was established more than 50 years ago to address the menace of hunger in our country. Since then, multiple studies have demonstrated that the program is responsible for profound reductions in food insecurity. Unfortunately, Trump and new Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg have both made proposals that would do grave harm to SNAP and its critical role in the American social safety net.

Unfortunately, Trump and Michael Bloomberg have both made proposals that would do grave harm to SNAP and its critical role in the American social safety net.

Before we get into those proposed changes, though, it’s important to remember why SNAP succeeds while other government programs may fall short. To be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, a social safety net like SNAP should be directed toward the most vulnerable among us. This goal is achieved by SNAP’s eligibility criteria which ensures that only those with limited incomes and assets participate. In addition, the benefits received by families are inversely related to income such that those with fewer resources get more benefits, and vice-versa.

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A social safety net should also be available to vulnerable households when times of need arise. At the federal level, SNAP fulfills this role by automatically expanding in times of more need and contracting in times of less need. This contrasts with other programs, like housing assistance programs, which only expand if additional funds are legislatively authorized. Especially in times of greater need, this is not as likely. At the family level, this translates into SNAP always being available. Given the challenges facing many families in escaping poverty, the ability to rely on SNAP is critical. (Despite these challenges, over half of SNAP recipients are on the program for less than one year in any given spell.)

Fortunately, most Americans have never fallen into desperate enough straits to qualify for SNAP and, of these, many are unlikely to ever need SNAP benefits. However, tens of millions of Americans have relied on SNAP benefits at some point in their lives to weather difficult times. And, among those of us who have not yet needed SNAP, millions of us will likely face times when either ourselves or our family members need to use SNAP benefits.

When facing these struggles, we would like to be treated the same as others in our community and not be singled out for differential treatment. SNAP does this by allowing participants to shop in the same outlets and check out in the same lines as everyone else. More important, SNAP gives families the freedom to make their own decisions about food purchases. Because SNAP treats recipients with dignity and gives them autonomy, it has a remarkably high participation rate among eligible families especially in comparison to other assistance programs that do not provide this level of respect.

Given SNAP’s success, then, Trump’s and Bloomberg’s changes are frustrating.

Trump has proposed a few things that would eliminate SNAP eligibility for millions of Americans. The work requirement has already been formalized. But of particular concern is the proposal to eliminate states’ ability to set higher gross income and asset eligibility thresholds. Along with forcing SNAP recipients off the program, this would create serious disincentives for working and saving.

In terms of the former, many SNAP recipients are still net income eligible despite having gross incomes far above the federal threshold. Under current rules, SNAP recipients would continue their current work patterns. In contrast, with a lower threshold, the “tax” on their earnings at the cutoff would be so substantial that recipients would likely cut back on their hours worked in order to maintain eligibility. A similar scenario holds for the asset test — people would be forced to spend down their assets or not accrue assets in order to maintain eligibility. I don’t think it is the intention of the Trump administration to discourage work and savings, but that would likely be the outcome.

During his time as mayor of New York, Bloomberg also proposed changes to SNAP in his city that would have disrupted the dignity and autonomy given to SNAP recipients. In particular, he wanted to prevent low-income New Yorkers from using SNAP benefits to purchase sugar sweetened beverages such as iced tea, colas and energy drinks. In doing so, he stigmatized recipients and implied they should not be allowed to make their own shopping choices. Interestingly, Bloomberg did not propose that city worker paychecks or his generous tax breaks to his fellow multimillionaires could only be used to spend money on “healthy items.”

SNAP needs to be preserved — and even expanded — as an American treasure. Making sure all Americans have enough food to eat has long enjoyed bipartisan support; let us hope that continues.