Lisbon Fined for Sharing Protesters’ Data with Targeted Embassies

The mayor’s office in Lisbon has been fined $1.4 million for sharing the personal data of protest organizers with embassies of countries targeted by the protests, Portugal’s data protection commission said on Friday. The mayor’s office came under fire in June 2021 when Ksenia Ashrafullina, a Russian-Portuguese organizer of a protest rally in Lisbon, said she had received an email showing the city hall had shared data on her and fellow organizers with the Russian Embassy. After an internal investigation, it was revealed that data on organizers of 180 protests has been shared with embassies since 2012, 52 of which occurred after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation — which bans such data sharing — came into force in 2018. The city hall, then led by Socialist mayor Fernando Medina, shared data of protesters in front of the Cuban, Angolan, Venezuelan, Israeli embassies with the targeted institutions. The decision by the data protection commission (CNPD), published on its website, said that between 2018 and 2021 there were a total of 225 data breaches committed by the mayor’s office related to sharing protesters’ personal information with embassies and other entities. In a statement, the mayor’s office, now headed by Social Democrat Carlos Moedas, said the decision was a “heavy legacy the previous leadership … left to the people of Lisbon,” adding the fine now posed a challenge for the budget. “We will evaluate this fine in detail and how best to protect the interests of citizens and the institution,” it said. Medina did not immediately respond to a request for comment Ashrafullina, who organized the rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, told Reuters she was satisfied with the CNPD’s decision: “We have been waiting for it, and it finally came.” But Ashrafullina is still scared about the …

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Former Danish Defense Minister Charged with State Secret Leaks

Denmark’s former defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said on Friday he has been charged with violating a section of the penal code which includes treason for leaking state secrets. Frederiksen, who served as defense minister from 2016-19, was charged with the rarely used section 109 of the code, which carries a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison, although it was not clear exactly what he was accused of. Section 109 covers any “person who discloses or imparts any information on secret negotiations, deliberations or resolutions of the state or its rights in relation to foreign states.” A statement published by Frederiksen on Friday did not specify what the charges against him referred to or whether the charges related to his time as a minister. “I have spoken out as a member of parliament on a political issue, and I have nothing further to add at present. But I could never dream of doing anything that could harm Denmark or Denmark’s interests,” Frederiksen said in a statement. It was not clear which comments Frederiksen referred to in his statement. The state prosecutors office and the Ministry of Defense declined to comment on Frederiksen’s statement. The news come after the head of Denmark’s foreign intelligence unit last month was detained, charged under the same section of the law over his suspected involvement in a case of “highly classified” information leaks. Lars Findsen has denied wrongdoing, describing the accusation as “completely insane.”    …

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Europe Sees Hope for Eventual Deal in Mali 

A key European diplomat believes there is still a chance to defuse the growing political crisis in Mali that has seen the country’s interim military government clash repeatedly in recent days with both its neighbors and members of the international community. Emanuela Del Re, the European Union’s special representative for the Sahel, criticized Mali’s current rulers for provoking countries in the region and Europe by postponing elections for five years and for bringing in Russian mercenaries to help with security. But in an interview Friday with VOA, Del Re said she thinks the coup leaders will eventually have no choice but to relent. “I think that despite, of course, the fact that the government is so firm in saying that they want this long transition because probably they want to stay in power for a long time, the pressure will be so strong that at one point they will have to come to a compromise,” she said. Del Re praised sanctions targeting Mali adopted earlier this week by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the EU, describing them as coherent and consequential, and called on the international community to maintain the pressure on the interim government. Brussels meeting At the same time, though, she and other European officials are continuing to talk to Malian officials and expect Mali to take part in a meeting scheduled for later this month in Brussels. “The European Union wants to be coherent with this approach of the sanctions … it wants to be firm in this sense,” Del Re told VOA. “At the same time, it wants to also keep the doors open for negotiation.” “I am sure that there will negotiations. There will be a dialogue,” she added. Thousands of supporters of Mali’s military government took to the streets Friday in …

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Johnson’s Office Apologizes to Queen for Party on Eve of Husband’s Funeral

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office apologized to Queen Elizabeth on Friday after it emerged that staff members partied late into the night in Downing Street on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, when indoor gatherings were banned. Johnson is facing the gravest crisis of his premiership after almost daily revelations of social gatherings during COVID-19 lockdowns, some held when ordinary people could not bid farewell in person to dying relatives. As an opinion poll showed the opposition Labour Party pulling into a 10-point lead over Johnson’s Conservatives, a report said he had encouraged staff to “let off steam” during regular “wine-time Friday” gatherings. Johnson, who built a political career out of flouting accepted norms, finds himself now under growing pressure from some of his own lawmakers to quit. Opponents say he is unfit to rule and has misled parliament by denying COVID-19 guidance was breached. In an extraordinary twist to a saga that has been widely lampooned by comedians and cartoonists, the Daily Telegraph said drinking parties were held inside Downing Street on April 16, 2021, the day before Prince Philip’s funeral. “It is deeply regrettable this took place at a time of national mourning and No. 10 (Downing Street) has apologized to the palace,” Johnson’s spokesperson told reporters. Johnson was at his country residence that day and was not invited to any gathering, his spokesperson said. Such was the revelry in Downing Street, the Telegraph said, that staff went to a nearby supermarket to buy a suitcase of alcohol, spilled wine on carpets, and broke a swing used by the prime minister’s son. The next day, Queen Elizabeth bade farewell to Philip, her husband of 73 years, following his death at 99. Dressed in black and in a white-trimmed black face mask, the 95-year-old Elizabeth cut a poignant …

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US Says Russia Preparing ‘False Flag’ Operation to Justify Invading Ukraine

A flurry of security talks in Europe this week aimed at defusing the crisis over Russian troops massed at the border with Ukraine have ended with no breakthrough. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan says Washington and its allies are now “ready for any contingency” to deal with Moscow’s actions, as Ukraine suffered a massive cyberattack on government websites overnight. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports. …

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Russia Takes Down Hacking Group at US Request, Intelligence Service Says

Russia has conducted a special operation against ransomware crime group REvil at the request of the United States and has detained and charged the group’s members, the FSB domestic intelligence service said Friday.  The arrests were a rare apparent demonstration of collaboration between Russia and the United States, at a time of high tensions between the two over Ukraine. The announcement came even as Ukraine was responding to a massive cyberattack that shut down government websites, though there was no indication the incidents were related.  A joint police and FSB operation searched 25 addresses, detaining 14 people, the FSB said, listing assets it had seized, including 426 million rubles, $600,000, 500,000 euros, computer equipment and 20 luxury cars.  Russia informed the United States directly of the moves it had taken against the group, the FSB said on its website. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it could not immediately comment.  “The investigative measures were based on a request from the … United States,” the FSB said. ” … The organized criminal association has ceased to exist and the information infrastructure used for criminal purposes was neutralized.”  The REN TV channel aired footage of agents raiding homes and arresting people, pinning them to the floor, and seizing large piles of dollars and Russian rubles.  The group members have been charged and could face up to seven years in prison.  A source familiar with the case told Interfax the group’s members with Russian citizenship would not be handed over to the United States.  The United States said in November that it was offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of anyone holding a key position in the REvil group.  The United States has been hit by a string of high-profile hacks by ransom-seeking cybercriminals. …

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Turkey, Armenia Hold First Talks in Years on Normalizing Ties

Turkey and Armenia on Friday said a first round of talks in more than 10 years was “positive and constructive,” raising the prospect that ties could be restored and borders reopened after decades of animosity.  Turkey has had no diplomatic or commercial ties with its eastern neighbor since the 1990s. The talks in Moscow were the first attempt to restore links since a 2009 peace accord. That deal was never ratified and relations have remained tense.  The Turkish and Armenian foreign ministries said Friday the talks were held in a “positive and constructive” atmosphere, adding both sides were committed to a full normalization without any pre-conditions. They said special envoys had “exchanged their preliminary views regarding the normalization process.”  The neighbors are at odds over several issues, primarily the 1.5 million people Armenia says were killed in 1915. Armenia says the 1915 killings constitute a genocide, a position supported by the United States and some others. Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One but contests the figures and denies killings were systematic or constitute genocide.  Tensions again flared during a 2020 war over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Turkey accused ethnic Armenian forces of occupying land belonging to Azerbaijan. Turkey has since called for a rapprochement, as it seeks greater influence in the region.  In separate but similarly worded statements, the foreign ministries said a date and location for the next round of talks would be finalized later.  Turkish diplomatic sources said the discussions between the delegations lasted for about 90 minutes.  Russia’s TASS news agency cited Armenia’s foreign ministry as saying Thursday it expected the talks to lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of frontiers closed since 1993.  Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow …

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British Intelligence Shines Light on Chinese Spy ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’

Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is coming under political pressure to explain why it did not alert lawmakers sooner about the activities of a suspected Chinese spy, who the security service now say was “knowingly engaged in political interference in the U.K.” The British security agencies have been warning in recent months about China increasing espionage activity in the country, but alleged spy Christine Lee, a 59-year-old mother of two and legal adviser to the Chinese embassy, was allowed to work unhindered and even received an award in 2019 from 10 Downing Street. According to a rare alert sent by MI5 Thursday to authorities at the House of Commons, Lee facilitated and channeled financial donations from China to political parties and parliamentarians and spent the best part of three decades establishing connections with politicians and high-flyers. The MI5 alert said Lee is an agent for the United Front Work Department, a department that reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The alert says she has been using the financial donations to gain access to British politicians and to exert political influence. One of the biggest beneficiaries was senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner.   Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied the allegations on Friday. “China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” he said during a press briefing in Beijing. “We have no need and will not engage in so-called interference activities. Certain people may have watched too many ‘007’ movies, resulting in too many unnecessary associations.” The Chinese embassy in Britain said the accusations against Lee were part of a campaign of “smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the U.K.” Between 2015 and 2020, Lee’s law firm, based in the English town of Birmingham, alone donated …

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Watchdog Slams Bulgarian Court Ruling as ‘Judicial Harassment’ of Journalists

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned as “judicial harassment” a recent court ruling in Bulgaria where two journalists and a website were found guilty of defamation for articles they published in 2018. The Sofia City Court (SCC) found that Boris Mitov, now a journalist for RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, and Stoyana Georgieva, had caused physical and mental anguish to Svetlin Mihailov, a former chair of the SCC, and ordered them and the website that published the articles four years ago to pay him damages amounting to 60,000 Bulgarian lev ($34,659). In 2018, Mitov was covering Mihailov’s bid to become head of the SCC, Bulgaria’s largest district court, for the news website Mediapool. At the time, Georgieva was the editor in chief of Mediapool. Four of those articles were examined by the court, and Judge Daniela Popova ruled on December 21 that they contained “defamatory allegations against [Mihailov].” Lawyers for Mitov and Georgieva argued that the articles in question contained information about Mihailov, including questions about his sizable wealth and property, that had appeared at the time and since then in other publications. In her ruling, Popova did not specify exactly what extracts from the articles in question she found “indecent, vulgar, and cynical.” Popova ordered the two journalists and Mediapool to each pay Mihailov 20,000 lev ($11,553). “This gag-verdict could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk, in a statement issued on January 14. “The disproportionate amount of damages that the journalists have been ordered to pay could have a chilling effect on media covering matters of public interest.” “We urge the Sofia appeal court to overturn this decision. At the same time, we call on the government to adopt concrete provisions so that abusive lawsuits can …

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‘Be Afraid’: Ukraine Hit by Cyberattack, Russia Moves More Troops

Ukraine was hit by a massive cyberattack warning its citizens to “be afraid and expect the worst”, and Russia, which has massed more than 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s frontier, released TV pictures on Friday of more forces deploying in a drill. The developments came after no breakthrough was reached at meetings between Russia and Western states, which fear Moscow could launch a new attack on a country it invaded in 2014. “The drumbeat of war is sounding loud,” said a senior U.S. Diplomat. Russia denies plans to attack Ukraine but says it could take unspecified military action unless demands are met, including a promise by the NATO alliance never to admit Kyiv. Russia said troops in its far east would practice deploying to far-away military sites for exercises as part of an inspection. Defense Ministry footage released by RIA news agency showed numerous armored vehicles and other military hardware being loaded onto trains in the Eastern Military District. “This is likely cover for the units being moved towards Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst and a fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. The movements indicated Russia has no intention of dialing down tensions over Ukraine, having used its troop build-up to force the West to the negotiating table and press sweeping demands for “security guarantees” – key elements of which have been described by the United States as non-starters. Ukrainian authorities were investigating a huge cyberattack, which hit government bodies including the ministry of foreign affairs, cabinet of ministers, and security and defense council. “Ukrainian! All your personal data was uploaded to the public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it,” said a message visible on hacked government websites, written in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. “All information about you …

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Masks Rules Get Tighter in Europe in Winter’s COVID-19 Wave

To mask or not to mask is a question Italy settled early in the COVID-19 outbreak with a vigorous “yes.” Now the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in Europe hopes even stricter mask rules will help it beat the latest infection surge. Other countries are taking similar action as the more transmissible — yet, apparently, less virulent — omicron variant spreads through the continent. With Italy’s hospital ICUs rapidly filling with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, the government announced on Christmas Eve that FFP2 masks — which offer users more protection than cloth or surgical masks — must be worn on public transport, including planes, trains, ferries and subways. That’s even though all passengers in Italy, as of this week, must be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s also must now be worn at theaters, cinemas and sports events, indoors or out, and can’t be removed even for their wearers to eat or drink. Italy re-introduced an outdoor mask mandate. It had never lifted its indoor mandate — even when infections sharply dropped in the summer. On a chilly morning in Rome this week, Lillo D’Amico, 84, sported a wool cap and white FFP2 as he bought a newspaper at his neighborhood newsstand. “(Masks) cost little money, they cost you a small sacrifice,” he said. “When you do the math, it costs far less than hospitalization.” When he sees someone from the unmasked minority walking by, he keeps a distance. “They see (masks) as an affront to their freedom,” D’Amico said, shrugging. Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve. After the 14-day contagion rate soared to 2,722 new infections per 100,000 people by the end of last week — from 40 per 100,000 in mid-October — Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was asked whether the outdoor mask mandate was …

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Dutch King Won’t Use Carriage Criticized for Colonial Image

The Dutch king ruled out Thursday using, for now at least, the royal family’s Golden Carriage, one side of which bears a painting that critics say glorifies the Netherlands’ colonial past, including its role in the global slave trade. The announcement was an acknowledgement of the heated debate about the carriage as the Netherlands reckons with the grim sides of its history as a 17th-century colonial superpower, including Dutch merchants making vast fortunes from slaves. “The Golden Carriage will only be able to drive again when the Netherlands is ready and that is not the case now,” King Willem-Alexander said in a video message. One side of the vehicle is decorated with a painting called “Tribute from the Colonies” that shows Black and Asian people, one of them kneeling, offering goods to a seated young white woman who symbolizes the Netherlands. The carriage is currently on display in an Amsterdam museum following a lengthy restoration. In the past it has been used to carry Dutch monarchs through the streets of The Hague to the state opening of Parliament each September. “There is no point in condemning and disqualifying what has happened through the lens of our time,” the king said. “Simply banning historical objects and symbols is certainly not a solution either. Instead, a concerted effort is needed that goes deeper and takes longer. An effort that unites us instead of divides us.” Anti-racism activist and co-founder of The Black Archives in Amsterdam, Mitchell Esajas, called the king’s statement “a good sign,” but also the “bare minimum” the monarch could have said. “He says the past should not be looked at from the perspective and values of the present … and I think that’s a fallacy because also in the historical context slavery can be seen as a crime against …

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Western Diplomats Warn of Impending Disaster in Sahel

Western diplomats fear the spread of extremist groups and persistent economic and social problems in Western Africa and the Sahel are nearing a tipping point that could have disastrous consequences for the region and beyond.  The officials from both Europe and the United States warned Thursday that international efforts have so far failed to counter factors that are driving young people to take up arms and called for increased cooperation with countries in the region.  “The rise of violent extremism and the worsening of the humanitarian situation in the Sahel and the wider West African region is threatening the future of the entire African continent and of all of us,” European Union Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis told the virtual conference. “This is as high stakes as it gets.”  U.S. officials described the situation as no less dire.  “Despite a decade of robust international investments, the region continues to trend in the wrong direction,” said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Gonzales.  “Armed groups continue to expand their presence as well as their capabilities and their violence,” Gonzales added. “We need to address the underlying drivers of insecurity more holistically in order to turn the tide.”  The biggest concern has been Mali, where terrorists linked to groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida have continued to make inroads, and where the military government, which seized power in August 2020, postponed elections scheduled for this February until 2026.  Earlier this week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed a series of sanctions against Mali’s interim government for refusing to hold elections as initially agreed, including the suspension of all commercial and financial transactions, and putting financial assistance on hold.  The EU on Thursday announced it would follow suit with its own sanctions against Mali’s interim government.  “Despite all …

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Dictators Face Democratic Backlash, Says Human Rights Watch

Autocratic leaders are facing a democratic backlash from their people in several countries around the world, according to the organization Human Rights Watch in its annual global report, which was published Thursday. The report said that in the past 12 months there have been a series of military coups and crackdowns on opposition figures.  In Myanmar, the military seized power last February and ousted the democratically elected government, jailing President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. In Nicaragua, opposition members were jailed on treason charges ahead of the November election, as President Daniel Ortega consolidated power. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni was re-elected in January 2021 after security forces arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protesters, and disrupted opposition rallies.   Democratic Backlash “The conventional wisdom these days is that autocrats are in the ascendancy and democratic leaders are in the decline, but when we looked back over the last year, we found that that view is actually too superficial, too simplistic,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with VOA.  In fact, there are encouraging signs of democratic uprisings, Roth said. “There’s an emergence of a series of popular demonstrations, popular protests for democracy against the autocrat. And we’ve seen this in a range of countries: in Thailand, Myanmar and Sudan, in Uganda, Nicaragua, Cuba, Poland, many parts of the world, these outpourings of support for human rights, for democracy, and against autocratic rule.” Despite the optimistic tone, the report catalogues the suppression of democracy and human rights in more than 100 countries. Tens of thousands of opposition activists, human rights defenders and civilians have been jailed, beaten or killed.  Russia In Russia, opposition leader Alexey Navalny remains in prison on parole-related violations after surviving a nerve agent attack …

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