Britain In Huawei Dilemma as China Relations Sour

There is growing speculation that Britain may be about to reverse course and ban the Chinese firm Huawei from its rollout of 5G mobile telecoms technology.  A move by the United States to ban U.S. companies from selling crucial microchips to Huawei appears to have changed the calculation in London. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, Beijing has warned Britain against what it calls ‘making China into an enemy.’Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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Serbian President Retracts COVID-19 Curfew After 60 Hurt in Violence

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has retracted his decision to reimpose a coronavirus curfew and has urged people to stop attending anti-government rallies after a violent clash between protesters and police.The president said Wednesday that new measures could still include shortened hours for nightclubs and penalties for those not wearing masks.On Tuesday, Vucic said at a news conference he would implement a curfew Friday, “probably” to run from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m. on July 13. The president added that gatherings would be restricted to five people starting Wednesday, citing a rising number of coronavirus cases in the country and hospitals running at full capacity.Vucic’s backtracking Wednesday came after a protest by thousands Tuesday night outside the parliament building in Belgrade. Police fired tear gas and beat demonstrators, while protesters retaliated by throwing stones and bottles at officers, some chanting for the resignation of the president.The clash left 17 protesters and 43 police injured and 23 protesters arrested, according to police director Vladmir Rebic. More protests were reported Wednesday.Vucic said foreign secret services were behind the protests by “right-wing and pro-fascist demonstrators.” He did not name specific intelligence agencies and stood by the police’s handling of the protests.”We will never allow the destabilization of Serbia from within and abroad,” he said.The president’s critics have accused him of lifting previous lockdown measures to hold parliamentary elections on June 21, which Vucic’s Progressive Party won by a landslide — accusations the president has denied.Critics also blame Vucic for the swell in infection rates, as the government permitted sports matches, religious festivities, parties and private gatherings to resume after lifting state of emergency restrictions on May 6.As of Wednesday afternoon EDT, Serbia had 17,076 reported cases of the coronavirus infection and 341 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics.

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British Prime Minister Takes Responsibility for COVID-19 Response

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday he takes full responsibility for the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, two days after appearing to blame workers in health care facilities for the deaths of residents there.Johnson was responding in parliament to opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, who quoted the prime minister regarding deaths in British care homes.  Johnson said, “too many care workers did not follow procedures the way they should have.” Starmer said front-line care workers took great offense at the remark and called on Johnson to apologize.The prime minister responded by saying the last thing he wanted to do was blame care workers or for anyone to think he was blaming them and said they have done “an outstanding job.” He said, “When it comes to taking blame, I take full responsibility for what has happened.”Johnson added that no one knew when the pandemic began that COVID-19 would spread asymptomatically the way it does, and procedures changed.Starmer said Johnson’s explanation was not an apology and said by refusing to do so, Johnson “rubs salt in the wound” of the frontline workers he says he admires so much.  Johnson responded by calling for bipartisan measures to invest in and reform Britain’s care home sector.

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Russian Journalists Fear Growing Media Persecution After Treason Arrest 

Russian journalists have launched a petition demanding treason allegations against a former reporter be made public, fearing the case is bogus and that media are being increasingly persecuted.   Ivan Safronov, a former newspaper journalist working at Russia’s space agency since May, was detained by security agents outside his flat on Tuesday and accused of passing military secrets to the Czech Republic. He denies the charges.   At a closed hearing, the court ordered Safronov to be held in custody for two months. One of his lawyers, Ivan Pavlov, said the hearing was unusual as the state investigator had not presented any evidence. Ivan Safronov stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2020. “Now they’ve taken Ivan Safronov,” read the petition circulated online by journalists at investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and signed by nearly 7,500 people.   The petition said the case should be declassified and the allegations made public, adding: “Otherwise it’s fake. The evidence is hidden when it is fake.”   The Kremlin noted what it described as some emotional media reactions, but said those outlets had not seen the evidence, which would be reviewed in court. It said it had seen no signs of a campaign of pressure against reporters.   Several journalists were photographed staging one-person pickets in various Russian cities on Wednesday, demanding Safronov be freed. Dozens of people, including journalists, were detained by Moscow police on Tuesday.   On Monday, a court in the city of Pskov found another journalist guilty of justifying terrorism. She denied the charge.   Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva charged with publicly justifying terrorism arrives for a court hearing in Pskov, Russia, July 6, 2020.Mediazona, a private media outlet, wrote that it looked like law enforcement agencies were trying to “force us to stay silent.”   FILE – Pyotr Verzilov gestures during a court hearing in Moscow, July 16, 2018.Police opened a criminal case this week against Mediazona’s publisher, Pyotr Verzilov, for failing to declare dual Canadian citizenship. He is an anti-Kremlin activist.   The U.S. Embassy’s spokeswoman wrote on Twitter it was “starting to look like a concerted campaign against #MediaFreedom.”   “Mind your own business,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded. 

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Russia Charges Former Journalist with Treason 

A former Russian journalist currently employed by the country’s space agency has been arrested and charged with state treason for passing secrets to the West — punishment, his supporters argue, for his past coverage of sensitive Russian military and political affairs.    Ivan Safronov, 30, spent much of the past decade was a military analyst and reporter for Kommersant and Vedomosti, two vaunted national newspapers that have seen their independence increasingly clipped and key staff shakeups amid a wider curtailing of media freedoms in Russia.  Video released by Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, showed the former journalist quickly being detained by agents as he approached his car outside his home in Moscow on Wednesday morning.  Ivan Safronov is escorted before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2020.“Safronov, carrying out tasks for one of the NATO countries’ intelligence services, gathered and handed over to its representative state secrets and information about military-technical cooperation and about the defense and security of the Russian Federation,” said the agency in a statement Tuesday.  Safronov has denied the charges and says the arrest is tied to his journalist work.  He could be heard saying “I’m not guilty” to reporters as agents frog-marched him into a closed court hearing.  A judge later ruled he remain in pre-trial detention until September 6, pending an investigation.  Allegations of spying for NATO Safronov’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, says the FSB alleges Czech agents recruited Safronov in 2012 on behalf of the US, and that his client is accused of passing information about Russian military cooperation with a country in the Middle East and Africa to them in 2017.  “No evidence was presented on which those charges are based,” said Pavlov to journalists.  Yet Russian media attention has focused on publications that may have played a role in Safronov’s troubles.  In June 2019, the state launched court proceedings against Kommersant over allegedly disclosing state secrets.  The article in question was widely considered to be a piece co-authored by Safronov that said the Kremlin was preparing the sale of Russian SU-35 Sukhoi fighter jets to Egypt, a U.S. ally.  The piece caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reacted by threatening Egypt with sanctions.  The deal never took place and the article has since been pulled from Kommersant’s online archives.  FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with the speaker of the Federation Council, upper parliament chamber Valentina Matviyenko at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2017.Safronov also provoked the ire of authorities as one of the authors of a 2019 article asserting that Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia’s Upper Chamber, was being pushed out of her position amid a Kremlin shakeup.    Kommersant’s management fired Safronov over the article amid the government pressure.  Kommersant’s entire political department quit over the decision.   Today, Matviyenko remains in her post.  Two months ago, Safronov left journalism for a job as a media advisor to Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former Ambassador to NATO who currently heads Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos.   Roscosmos issued a statement insisting the arrest and nothing to do Safronov’s work at the agency.  Yet the Kremlin insisted Safronov’s journalistic work was not related to the charges.  ”As far as we know this is not linked to his prior journalistic activity in any way,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Safronov had worked for a time in the so-called “presidential pool” covering the activities of Vladimir Putin.  Supporters detained Outraged Russian journalists picketed in support of Safronov outside of FSB headquarters in Moscow — with a number of people briefly detained.   FSB representatives justified the arrests by pointing to restrictions outlawing protests amid to the coronavirus outbreak.  Protesters also expressed anger at the detention of journalist Taisiya Bekbulatova, the editor of the online portal Kholod and a friend of Safronov’s, after police raided her apartment and took her in for questioning related to the case.  “When they imprison one journalist after another — it’s a bad sign, a bad sign for the country,” said Kommersant reporter Alexander Chernikh, in a video posted to Twitter from the back of a police van.   «Когда один за другим сажают журналистов — это очень плохой знак, очень плохой знак для всей нашей страны». Задержанный корреспондент “Ъ” Александр Черных о деле Ивана Сафронова. pic.twitter.com/VHMmzkNuOQ
— Коммерсантъ (@kommersant) Prominent Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, cries as he leaves a Investigative Committee building in Moscow, Russia, June 11, 2019.While Safronov’s supporters are preparing to launch a similar public campaign, some note that treason charges make examining the evidence in trial all but impossible.   “It will be carried out with maximum secrecy,” wrote Medizona editor Sergei Smirnov FILE – Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying, listens to the verdict in a courtroom at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, June 15, 2020.Under Russian law, Safronov could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.  Safronov developed skills as a military analyst in the footsteps of his father,  Ivan Safronov Sr., who worked at Kommersant as a military analyst before his son.    
He died in 2007 after falling from a 5th story of his apartment under disputed circumstances.   At the time, he was investigating illicit sales of arms to Syria and Iran.  

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Massive Machines Search for Smallest Pieces of Universe

Antimatter.It’s not just the stuff of science fiction.  The physicists working at CERN – officially the European Organization for Nuclear Research – create it almost every day as part of their efforts to find out what the universe is made of and how it works. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, CERN is a consortium of 23 countries and includes scientists and workers from many more.Their research lab is a ring-shaped underground tunnel, 27 kilometers around, that crisscrosses the border between Switzerland and France. In the tunnel lies the Large Hadron Collider, where protons – one of the building blocks of atoms – are made to crash into one another with incredible force, creating, among other elements, antimatter. But just because physicists can make antimatter doesn’t mean they understand everything about it yet. Antimatter is as old as the universe, part of its original creation, in an event often referred to as the “Big Bang.” Ludivine Ceard, physicist with the CMS Collaboration, gestures at the Compace Muon Solinoid – one of the experiments at CERN, in Geneva, looking for the tiniest particles of matter. (Courtesy Robert Gumm.)Ludivine Ceard, a physicist with CERN, discussed one of the theories behind the research.“We have this theory that says that right after the Big Bang, there was creation in equal amount between matter and antimatter,” she said.“In principle, if the difference between the two is only the charge, they should have just recombined and left nothing but radiation; however, we are here. I’m talking with you right now. So it means that at some point, matter took over the antimatter, and this must be because there are some differences between matter and antimatter that we don’t know about,” Ceard said.Searching for those differences is one of the tasks for the people at the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS, one of four main experiment sites around the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  A muon is one of the so-called elementary particles, one with no smaller components. It is similar to an electron, but heavier. And while it is very, very tiny, the machine built to study it is large. A CMS staff member walking near the structure when VOA visited was dwarfed by the apparatus designed to study the muon.A cutaway illustration of the tube carrying the proton beams around the Large Hadron collider. The tube has been removed for maintenance. (Courtesy Robert Gumm)To create muons and antimatter, packets of protons race around a circular track in the LHC in two beams, one traveling clockwise and one counterclockwise near the speed of light. When the physicists are ready, the beams are focused and made to collide at just the right spot. Rende Steerenberg heads the group in charge of seeing those collisions happen. “On either end of the experiments we will switch on focusing magnets so that the beam squeezes into a small dimension and therefore the probability of collision increases,” he said.Even so, with 100 billion protons in a packet moving in one direction, and another 100 billion protons moving the other way, only 50 protons are likely to collide.Right now, the probability of a collision is zero – because the collider and the experiments around it are in the midst of a two-year shutdown for maintenance and upgrades – which happens every three years. You might think that would leave the scientists feeling frustrated, but you would be wrong. Patricia McBride, physicist with Fermilab, and deputy spokesperson of the CMS Collaboration in Geneva. (Courtesy Robert Gumm)The deputy spokesperson of the CMS Collaboration, Patricia McBride from Fermilab in the U.S., says what we might think of as down time is anything but.“I would say that for us it’s an opportunity. It’s also one of the busiest times for us because not only are we looking at the data that we’ve collected from the LHC from the last two rounds, but we’re looking at ways of making the detector better, repairing things, putting in new detectors, and preparing for the future runs which the experiment will be running until we hope till 2035,” she said.The collider was built in 10 years. Shortly after going into operation, it immediately made its predecessor, the Tevatron, a circular collider at the United States’ Fermilab in Illinois, obsolete. The Tevatron shut down in September 2011, not long after the LHC created its first particle collisions. But the researchers at Fermilab weren’t devastated by their eclipse. In fact, they helped build the new collider, and when it opened, they presented the new team with a baton – like those used in relay races – to symbolize the continuation of their research efforts. The CMS collaboration includes some 4,000 Scientists from more than 50 countries from across Europe, India, China, South Korea, Egypt, other parts of the Middle East and Russia.The discoveries and developments made at CERN are already helping to transform fields as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, medical testing, detection of art forgeries and efforts to disrupt financial markets. Technologies developed for CERN are also finding uses in optimizing farm irrigation, in creating sensors that detect water pollution, and in speeding up machine learning, to create better software for self-driving vehicles. And while the scientists love when the experiments confirm their predictions, they also love it when things don’t turn out as expected – because that might be saying something very fundamental about antimatter – and how the universe is put together. 

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Britain Sanctions Russian, Saudi Officials; Is China Next Target?

There are growing calls for Britain to also enact sanctions against human rights abusers in China, after the first such measures were imposed against dozens of individuals from Russia and Saudi Arabia. The first so-called ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions were announced Monday following years of campaigning by friends and family of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer killed in 2009. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the British capital is a center for global finance and travel – so campaigners hope the sanctions will have a substantial impact.Camera: Henry Ridgwell   
 

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Can Europeans Handle a Spike in COVID-19 Cases?

The United States is not the only country watching anxiously as coronavirus cases spike.Britain is poised to shutter individual towns in the event of a rise in confirmed cases. And the government has already locked down the English town of Leicester, where textile factories may be behind an alarming jump in infections, just as the rest of the country celebrated the easing of restrictions.Serbia reimposed a lockdown Friday as cases began to mount. Last month, neighboring Croatia reinstituted mandatory two-week self-isolation for travelers arriving from other Balkan countries. Bulgaria extended its state of emergency until July 15 and has made mask-wearing mandatory inside stores and public buildings.Deputy Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos, right, greets the 25 unaccompanied refugee children as they prepare to board a plane to Lisbon, Portugal at Athens International Airport, July 7, 2020.Following new outbreaks, Portugal renewed coronavirus restrictions on the capital, Lisbon, and the Spanish government has moved quickly with restrictions on parts of northeast Spain to try to tamp down local spikes.Some government officials say the biggest problem is persuading the public to observe social distancing rules and wearing masks. The easing of lockdowns and the reopening of economies do not mean caution should be jettisoned, they say.  Underlining their appeals for people to remain cautious and vigilant is an exasperation with egregious recklessness, prompting officials in some countries to question whether their citizens have the discipline or sense of civic responsibility to be trusted.In Britain, police expressed their frustration with maskless crowds converging outside bars and restaurants in some towns, including in central London. Last Saturday, the first day that bars reopened in England after the coronavirus shutdown, police described the close-quarters drinking and shoulder-to-shoulder socializing as “absolute madness.”“A predictably busy night confirmed what we knew, alcohol and social distancing is not a good combination,” tweeted John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales.Sgt. Richard Cooke of the West Midlands police tweeted, “Just got home after a long shift, late shift peppered with pub fights, domestic violence & drunken, drugged up fools. If today was anything to go by the second wave won’t be long in the making!”People sit and drink, outside a pub on the south bank of river Thames, as the capital is set to reopen after the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in London, July 4, 2020.Rafal Liszewski, a store manager in the London district of Soho, told reporters that on Saturday, “Everything got out of control. And by 8 to 9 p.m., it was a proper street party, with people dancing and drinking. Barely anyone was wearing masks, and nobody respected social distancing,” he said. Liszewski added, “To be honest, with that many people on one street, it was physically impossible” (to social distance).Beaches have also seen swarms of people. In the English coastal town of Bournemouth, Mayor Vikki Slade said recently she was “absolutely appalled at the scenes witnessed on our beaches.”Britain has not been alone in seeing months of lockdown giving way to impromptu parties, illicit raves and illegal parties, hastily organized on social media and held in parks and industrial estates. In Portugal, a ban in Lisbon on gatherings of more than five people was instituted amid reports of illicit parties attracting thousands of young revelers. Portugal had been hailed as one of Europe’s coronavirus success stories. The government’s swift response was credited with keeping the country’s death toll to well under 2,000. But in recent weeks, cases have soared. Parties have proven fertile for the virus — 76 new cases were linked to a birthday celebration in The Algarve.“After doing everything right, we’re not going to ruin it now,” Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said, as he banned drinking in public places and prohibited restaurants from serving alcohol after 8 p.m. Germany, France and Spain have all been worried about block parties and raves.Visitors watch oil on canvas of 1807 entitled Le Sacre de Napoleon by Jacques Louis David, at the Louvre Museum, in Paris, July 6, 2020.The World Health Organization warned that around 30 European countries have reported new case surges in the past two weeks, and epidemiologists said the trajectory is alarming in 11 countries.Spanish officials, who recently fined Belgium’s Prince Joachim $11,700 after he broke the country’s quarantine rules to attend a party in southern Spain, fear that people will not be able to resist the allure of the country’s ingrained culture of summer fiestas — as hundreds did recently in a spontaneous gathering in the Menorcan city of Ciutadella to mark the day of local Saint Joan.Along with officials, infectious disease experts blame signs of a resurgence on the negligence of the public, with too many people ignoring orders to wear masks and keep their distance. But critics in several European countries fault officials, saying governments have been giving mixed signals in their eagerness to restart economies and end lockdowns, and have issued at times contradictory and confused instructions. They say governments seem to be positioning themselves to blame the public for a coronavirus resurgence.David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, has criticized the lockdown easing as over-hasty. “We need to look at the fastest route out of COVID-19, and that is not the current route,” he said. 

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Dutch Police Arrest 6 Men After Discovery of ‘Torture Chambers’

Dutch police announced Tuesday they arrested six men after discovering shipping containers that had been converted into a makeshift prison and sound-proofed “torture chamber.”  In their statement, officials said they discovered seven converted sea shipping containers in a warehouse in Wouwse Plantage, a small village in the southwestern part of the Netherlands, close to the border with Belgium.  Law enforcement authorities released video Tuesday showing a special police unit opening the shipping containers to reveal a specially rigged dentists’ chair, along with tools that included pliers, scalpels and handcuffs.  Police say the discoveries were originally made last month after investigating leads generated by data from encrypted telephones used by criminals that were cracked recently by French police. Detectives in Britain and the Netherlands have already arrested hundreds of suspects based on the encrypted messages.The police said they were tipped off by messages from an EncroChat phone that included photos of the container and dentist’s chair with belts attached to the arm and foot supports. They arrested six men June 22, on suspicion of crimes including planning kidnappings and serious assault.  The messages called the warehouse the “treatment room” and the “ebi,” a reference to a top security Dutch prison. Police said the messages also revealed identities of potential victims, who were warned and went into hiding.Dutch authorities said last week that their investigation, codenamed 26Lemont, based on millions of messages from the EncroChat phones, had led to the arrest of more than 100 suspects and the seizure of more than 8,000 kilograms of cocaine and 1,200 kilograms of crystal meth, as well as the dismantling of 19 synthetic drug labs and the seizure of dozens of firearms.
 

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Russian Court Fines Coronavirus-Denying Rebel Monk

A Russian court on Tuesday fined a coronavirus-denying monk who has challenged Kremlin lockdown orders for spreading false information about the pandemic.The court in the Ural Mountains region ordered Father Sergiy to pay 90,000 rubles ($1,250). The 65-year-old monk, who has attracted nationwide attention by urging followers to disobey church leadership and ignore church closures during the pandemic, didn’t attend the court hearing.On Friday, a Russian Orthodox Church panel in Yekaterinburg ruled to defrock Father Sergiy for breaking monastic rules. He didn’t show up at the session and dismissed the verdict, urging his backers to come to defend the Sredneuralsk women’s monastery where he has holed up since last month.In Friday’s video posted by his supporters, Father Sergiy denounced President Vladimir Putin as a “traitor to the Motherland” serving a Satanic “world government” and dismissed Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill and other top clerics as “heretics” who must be “thrown out.”Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin wasn’t following developments regarding the rebel monk.  When contagion engulfed Russia, Father Sergiy declared the coronavirus non-existent and denounced government efforts to stem the outbreak as “Satan’s electronic camp.” The monk has described the vaccines being developed against COVID-19 as part of a global plot to control the masses via chips.He urged believers to disobey the closure of churches during the nationwide lockdown. Orthodox churches across Russia were closed on April 13 amid a quick rise in COVID-19 cases and were allowed to reopen in early June as authorities eased restrictions.The church banned the monk from ministry in April, but he has continued preaching and last month took charge of the monastery outside Yekaterinburg that he had founded years ago. Dozens of burly volunteers, including veterans of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, helped enforce his rules, while the prioress and several nuns have left.The police visited the monastery last month a day after Father Sergiy took over, but found no violations of public order. Facing stiff resistance by his supporters, church officials have appeared indecisive, lacking the means to enforce their ruling and evict the rebellious monk by force. 

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France’s New Government Takes Office at Tough Time 

France’s newly appointed government gets down to work this week facing big challenges, including coronavirus and the economic crisis — not to mention general elections in less than two years.
 
The new government takes office just over a week after President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party fared poorly in the second round of local elections. France’s new prime minister Jean Castex arrives at the Elysee Palace for the weekly cabinet meeting, in Paris, July 7, 2020.Heading it is Prime Minister Jean Castex, a little known former mayor from the Pyrenees. He earned the title of “Mr. Deconfinement” after managing France’s emergence from the coronavirus lockdown.  He replaces the popular Edouard Philippe, a possible challenger to Macron in the next election.  “President Macron has one goal: to fight the recession, to transform the country, to be in a better shape than now for the next presidential election,” said Ulysse Gosset, a political commentator for France’s BFMTV.“The job of the new prime minister is to execute the orders from Macron,” added Gosset. “He has to deal with the crisis. And no more. Macron doesn’t want a prime minister who could be a competitor like former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was.”  
Making more waves is the new interior minister, Gerard Darmanin. At 35, he’s the youngest interior minister of France’s Fifth Republic. He takes over at a time when the police force is demoralized and faces allegations of racism and brutality.  Newly appointed French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin arrives to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 7, 2020.Darmanin himself faces a preliminary investigation into a rape accusation, which Macron’s office says didn’t pose an obstacle to his appointment.  Police unions have offered a muted reaction to their new boss. But some feminists protested in front of the Elysee presidential palace.  New Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti is also controversial. He’s earned a reputation as a pugnacious lawyer defending Corsican nationalists, African politicians and Wikileaks founder Julien Assange. One judges union leader slammed his appointment as a “declaration of war” against the judiciary.  Macron’s reshuffled government faces heavy pressure to take environmental action after the Greens Party surged in municipal elections.Barbara Pompili, newly appointed French Minister for the Ecological Transition, arrives to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 7, 2020.The new minister for ecological transition, Barbara Pompili, co-founded an environmental party, and was a former secretary of state for biodiversity. But she isn’t a big name, and she’ll face close scrutiny in how she handles emissions reduction and other green goals.  

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Progress in AIDS/HIV Fight Uneven, UN Says

The United Nations says global HIV/AIDS targets for 2020 will not be met, and that some progress could be lost, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seriously impacted the HIV/AIDS response.“Our report shows that COVID is threatening to throw us even more off course,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS said Monday at the report’s launch in Geneva. “COVID is a disease that is claiming resources — the labs, the scientists, the health workers — away from HIV work. We want governments to use creative ways to keep the fight going on both. One disease cannot be used to fight another.”COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus.UNAIDS says despite expanding HIV treatment coverage — some 25 million of the 38 million people living with HIV now have access to antiretroviral therapy — progress is stalling. Over the last two years, new infections have plateaued at 1.7 million a year, and deaths have only dropped slightly — from 730,000 in 2018 to 690,000 last year. The U.N. attributes this to HIV prevention and testing services not reaching the most vulnerable groups, including sex workers, intravenous drug users, prisoners and gay men.COVID-19 poses an additional threat to the HIV/AIDS response because it can prevent people from accessing treatment. The U.N. estimates that if HIV patients are cut off from treatment for six months, it could lead to a half-million more deaths in sub-Saharan Africa over the next year, setting the region back to 2008 AIDS mortality levels. Even a 20% disruption could cause an additional 110,000 deaths.HIV/AIDS patients who contract COVID-19 are also at heightened risk of death, as the virus preys on weakened immune systems.The World Health Organization warned Monday that 73 countries are at risk of running out of antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO says 24 countries have reported having either a critically low stock of ARVs or disruptions in the supply chain.FILE – A doctor takes an AIDS/HIV blood test from an athlete during the 18th National Sports Festival in Lagos, Nigeria.Gains and lossesUNAIDS reports progress in eastern and southern Africa, where new HIV infections have dropped by 38% since 2010. But women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa continue to bear the brunt of the disease, accounting for nearly 60% of all new HIV infections in the region in 2019. Each week, some 4,500 teen girls and young women becoming infected. They are disproportionately affected, making up only 10% of the population, but nearly a quarter of new infections.Condom use has also dropped off in parts of central and western Africa, while it has risen in eastern and southern parts of the continent.Eastern Europe and Central Asia is one of only three regions where new infections are growing. Nearly half of all infections are among intravenous drug users. Only 63% of people who know their HIV status are on treatment. UNAIDS says there is an urgent need to scale up HIV prevention services, particularly in Russia.The Middle East and North Africa have also seen new infections rise by 22%, while they are up 21% in Latin America.“New infections are coming down in sub-Saharan Africa, but going up in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, going up in the Middle East and North Africa, and going up in Latin America. That’s disturbing,” Byanyima, the UNAIDS chief said.Progress is also impacted by draconian laws and social stigma. At least 82 countries criminalize some form of HIV transmission, exposure or nondisclosure.  Sex work is criminalized in at least 103 countries, and at least 108 countries criminalize the consumption or possession of drugs for personal use.One of UNAIDS’s main targets was to achieve “90-90-90” by this year. That means 90% of all people living with HIV would know their status; 90% of those diagnosed would be on antiretroviral treatment; and 90% of all people on treatment would have suppressed the virus in their system.Only 14 countries have reached the target, including Eswatini, which has one of the highest HIV rates in the world. The others are Australia, Botswana, Cambodia, Ireland, Namibia, the Netherlands, Rwanda, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.“It can be done,” Byanyima said. “We see rich and poor countries achieving the targets.”Globally, there have been gains in testing and treatment for HIV. By the end of 2019, more than 80% of people living with HIV worldwide knew their status, and more than two-thirds were receiving treatment. Therapies have also advanced, meaning nearly 60% of all people with HIV had suppressed viral loads in 2019.UNAIDS says that increased access to medications has prevented some 12.1 million AIDS-related deaths in the past decade.  While some 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses last year, that is a nearly 40% reduction since 2010.

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