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EU, US widen Nicaragua sanctions as Ortega begins new term

AFP

Daniel Ortega was sworn in Monday as Nicaragua’s president for a fourth straight term as the EU and US tightened sanctions over impugned elections held in November with all his challengers in jail.

“Yes, I swear,” said strongman Ortega as he and his wife Rosario Murillo, who was re-elected vice-president, were sworn in at a ceremony attended by the presidents of Cuba and Venezuela and envoys from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and Syria, among others.

Even before the event got under way, the European Union announced fresh sanctions against individuals it accuses of “undermining democracy” and human rights abuses in Nicaragua, including Ortega’s daughter and a son — both working as presidential advisors.

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Others sanctioned “in view of the worsening situation in Nicaragua” were senior officials of the country’s police force and electoral body, said the EU.

In Washington, the US Treasury placed sanctions on six regime officials, including two generals, the defense minister, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council and officials of the telecommunications regulator, who allegedly ran a social media troll farm to help Ortega.

Travel restrictions were imposed on 116 individuals tied to the regime, including mayors, prosecutors, security and university officials “complicit in undermining democracy,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

In his inaugural address, Ortega, 76, mocked the sanctions, calling them a “decoration” for Brenda Rocha, the electoral council head, who was one of the officials sanctioned.

He called the US measures “cowardly” and “cruel (…) not just to Nicaragua” but also to Cuba and Venezuela, which have also been subjected for years to “brutal sanctions” that he said must cease.

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– Russia and China –

In the months leading up to the November 7 vote, Nicaraguan authorities detained nearly 40 opposition figures, including seven would-be presidential challengers, assuring victory for long-time ruler Ortega.

As the international community rained opprobrium and sanctions on Ortega, he sought to improve ties with economic giants China and Russia.

Managua switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, in return for which China reopened its embassy in the Central American nation and donated thousands of coronavirus vaccines.

Moscow, in response to outreach from Managua, provided the country with wheat, vaccines, even buses for public transport.

A firebrand Marxist in his youth, Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after leading a guerrilla army that ousted US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

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Returning to power in 2007, he has won re-election three times, becoming increasingly dictatorial and quashing presidential term limits.

Ortega, with Murillo on his ticket, garnered 75 percent of the vote in November.

The election took place without independent international observers and with most foreign media denied access to the country.

The Nicaraguan parliament is dominated by Ortega allies, who also control the judiciary and electoral bodies.

Days before the election, Facebook announced it had closed a Nicaraguan government troll farm spreading anti-opposition messages.

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Besides Rocha, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council, the European Union also imposed sanctions on the council’s deputy head and a senior official who was acting chief in 2018.

The country’s telecoms enterprise was also listed for its bid “to silence independent media” and spread “disinformation.”

– ‘Sham’ –

US President Joe Biden has slammed the vote as a “sham” and the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) said it was “not free, just or transparent.” 

As sanctions were almost immediately announced by the US, EU, Canada, and Britain, Russia attacked the West for not recognizing the results. 

“We consider this unacceptable and we strongly condemn such a stance,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in November.

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The US State Department says Ortega’s regime continues to hold 170 political prisoners.

They include some 120 people who participated in anti-government protests in 2018 that were brutally repressed, causing more than 300 deaths and sending more than 100,000 people into exile, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Ortega insists the jailed are criminals and “terrorists” seeking to overthrow him with help from the United States.

Dozens of Nicaraguan exiles protested in neighboring Costa Rica on Sunday against Ortega’s inauguration.

The protest came on the same day that Nicaragua’s new parliament, also elected in November and dominated by Ortega’s left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front, was officially opened.

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Sports

Qatar’s ground control on alert for World Cup disasters

AFP

Facing a bank of screens that look like NASA mission command, technicians counting down to the World Cup in Qatar control the temperature,  gates, 15,000 cameras and much more in the eight stadiums.

The Aspire control and command centre will monitor all stadiums at once, as Qatar pulls out all the technical stops to keep an eye on the anticipated one million plus visitors from the moment they get off the plane to moment they leave.

Qatar has spent billions of dollars on building seven new stadiums and refurbishing an eighth for the first World Cup in an Arab country. It has seized on the uniquely short distance between them — barely 70 kilometres (43 miles) separate the two most distant venues — to set up the elaborate virtual network.

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Organisers say the control centre, bristling with alarms and sensors, will set a benchmark for global sports events which must guard against terrorism, natural disasters and hooligans, as well as leaking water pipes.

The numbers expected to be milling the streets worry the authorities. More than 3,000 Turkish police will reinforce local security forces, while small groups of police from each of the 32 competing nations will shadow their fans.

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Sports

Trial on Kobe Bryant death crash photos begins in US

AFP

A court case brought by Kobe Bryant’s widow over graphic photographs taken by first responders at the site of the helicopter crash that killed him got under way in the United States on Wednesday.

The basketball superstar and his teenage daughter were among nine people who died when their chopper smashed into a hillside near Los Angeles in January 2020.

Vanessa Bryant alleges she suffered emotional distress because personnel from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and firefighters snapped pictures of the scene, which they later shared with friends and first responders.

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“At least 11 (sheriff’s) personnel and a dozen firefighters shared the photos within 24 hours of the crash,” Bryant’s attorneys wrote in court papers.

“In the following weeks, one (sheriff’s) deputy flaunted photos of remains at a bar, another texted photos to a group of video game buddies, and (county fire) personnel displayed photos at an awards gala.”

Lawyers for Los Angeles County do not dispute that the photos were taken, but insist they have never been made public and have now been deleted.

Mira Hashmall, representing the county in the civil litigation, said the case hinged on this issue of public dissemination.

“From the time of the crash to now, the county has worked tirelessly to prevent its crash site photos from getting into the public domain,” she said.

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“Over two and a half years later, no county photos have appeared in the media, none can be found online, and the plaintiffs admit they’ve never seen them.”

Vanessa Bryant’s case has been combined with a similar case brought by Chris Chester, whose wife and 13-year-old daughter also died in the crash.

A jury of six women and four men were selected Wednesday, CNN reported.

Relatives of several other victims were last year granted $2.5 million in compensation over the photo-taking.

An investigation into the crash found the pilot had probably become disorientated after flying the Sikorsky S-76 into fog.

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Bryant is widely recognized as one of the greatest basketball players ever, a figure who became the face of his sport during a glittering two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers.

He was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 straight out of high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016, after which he began building a lucrative business portfolio.

He was also a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping the US squad of NBA stars to titles in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.

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Central America

Chopper crash victims rescued in Panama jungle after social media SOS

AFP

Six people have been rescued alive from a helicopter crash site in the Panama jungle after a dramatic SOS appeal on social media from one of the occupants, a presidential hopeful.

Rescuers sprang into action after Dimitri Flores posted a video online appealing for help, groaning in pain with the helicopter wreckage behind him.

“We had an accident here,” Flores told the camera, making an appeal for an urgent rescue mission.

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“There are broken legs, arms. We are six… we are alive,” he said.

In a later video, Flores complained that they had been waiting at the crash site in a jungle area of Panama’s southwest for four hours and 20 minutes.

“It was a titanic task to get the wounded out,” Daniel Rodriguez, deputy commissioner of Panama’s National Aeronaval Service (Senan) said on Thursday.

He said the crash happened on Wednesday morning in a mountainous, wooded area more than 1,700 meters (more than 5,500 feet) above sea level.

Rodriguez said the authorities received a callout around 11.00 am on Wednesday (1600 GMT) and rescued the first group around 8.00 pm.

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Two of them had broken bones.

Given the difficult terrain, the last crash victim was evacuated shortly before midnight, said Rodriguez.

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