Russia To Expel 60 United States’ Diplomats, Close Embassy

FILE COPY Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin Photo: AFP


Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Thursday Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal. 

Lavrov said that the US ambassador had been informed of “retaliatory measures”, saying that “they include the expulsion of the equivalent number of diplomats and our decision to withdraw permission for the functioning of the US consulate general in Saint Petersburg”. Washington earlier ordered the expulsion of 60 diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate general in Seattle.


Yulia Skripal’s Health ‘Improving Rapidly’ After Nerve Agent Attack

FILE COPY Yul Skripal Photo Credit: CNN


Yulia Skripal, hit in a nerve agent attack that has chilled relations between Russia and the West, came out of critical care on Thursday following a swift improvement in her health.

The 33-year-old daughter of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal is “improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition. Her condition is now stable”, said the hospital treating the pair since the March 4 attack.

Sergei Skripal, 66, remains in a critical but stable condition, Salisbury District Hospital’s board said.

The attack on the Skripals in the southwestern English city has been met with a major response that has seen more than 150 Russian diplomats expelled from countries around the world.

British authorities have blamed Moscow, which denies any involvement, and said a Soviet-designed nerve agent dubbed Novichok was used in the poisoning — the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II.

“I’m pleased to be able to report an improvement in the condition of Yulia Skripal,” said Doctor Christine Blanshard, the Salisbury hospital’s medical director.

“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day.”

A court last week heard that, at that stage, she could not communicate in any meaningful way, while her father could not communicate at all.

British counter-terror police on Wednesday said the Skripals first came into contact with a nerve agent at his Salisbury home — with the highest concentration on the front door.

British police said around 250 counter-terrorism detectives are working on the case, which could continue for months.

Around 500 witnesses have been identified and police are looking for more than 5,000 hours of security camera footage.

Novichok on the front door 

“We believe the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent from their front door,” Dean Haydon, Britain’s counter-terror police chief, said on Wednesday.

“Traces of the nerve agent have been found at some of the other scenes detectives have been working at over the past few weeks, but at lower concentrations to that found at the home address.”

Investigators had sealed off the bench where the Skripals were found, a pub and restaurant the pair visited, and the grave of the former spy’s wife.

The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said the highest concentration was found on Skripal’s door handle and could have been administered through a “gloopy substance which could have been smeared on”.

It would explain why the nerve agent may have been found on Skripal’s car or the restaurant in which they had eaten, he added.

Alastair Hay, professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said little was known about the Novichok family of nerve agents.

However, in persistent agents like the better-known VX, contamination is generally through the skin and the full effects are not immediate.

“In situations like the one involving the Skripals, it is likely there would have been a delayed onset of symptoms like headaches, feeling nauseous, feeling very weak and possibly vomiting, after the typical exposure occurs through skin contact,” he said.

Skripal sold secrets to Britain and moved there in a 2010 spy swap. His daughter was visiting from Russia.

Breaking point 

Moscow is facing a “global wave of revulsion” in response to the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.

“The Kremlin underestimated the strength of global feeling,” Johnson said at a speech late Wednesday in London.

“When years of vexation and provocation have worn the collective patience to breaking point, and when across the world — across three continents — there are countries who are willing to say enough is enough.”

While the Skripals remain in hospital, a police officer who responded to the attack was discharged last week.

International experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Salisbury on March 20 to verify Britain’s findings.

Britain has been backed by the NATO defence alliance, the United States, 18 European Union nations and other countries in expelling Russian diplomats over the attack.

Moscow has already ordered 23 British diplomats to leave Russia in response to the same move by London and is expected to take further retaliatory measures against other countries.

Meanwhile, more than £880 million ($1.25 billion, one billion euros) of British property claimed to have been bought by Russians with suspect money is to be investigated by a parliamentary inquiry.

The Treasury Select Committee said it will probe the scale of economic crime in Britain following claims the country — in particular the London property market — has become the “destination of choice” to launder money.


No British Referee Chosen For World Cup



This summer’s World Cup will feature no English referees for the first time in post-war history, nor assistants, after FIFA confirmed its official list of 99 match officials for Russia 2018 on Thursday.

England whistler Mark Clattenburg, who retired from Premier League duty last summer, had been included in a pre-selected group drawn up by world ruling body FIFA two years ago.

But his money-spinning move to Saudi Arabia left no English referees on FIFA’s World Cup list for the first time since before the second world war.

The referees representing UEFA-affiliated countries are from Germany, Turkey, Russia, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Serbia, Italy, Slovenia and France.

In another snub to England, globally considered the creators of the ‘beautiful game’, no English assistants will officiate at the competition.

FIFA’s decision comes amid the ongoing tension between Britain and Russia following the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.

The incident, which has since led to tit-for-tat expulsions of foreign embassy staff, prompted Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to decide that no British dignitaries or members of the royal family will attend the competition, held June 14-July 15.


Kane Could Face Chelsea, Says Pochettino

Kane Sets New Record As Tottenham Crush Southampton
FILE COPY Tottenham Hotspur’s English striker, Harry Kane 


Tottenham striker, Harry Kane, could face Chelsea in a crucial Premier League encounter on Sunday after a quicker than expected recovery from an ankle ligament injury, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said.

The 24-year-old England marksman, who has 31 goals to his credit this term, injured his ankle last month against Bournemouth and wasn’t expected to return to training until April.

However, Pochettino, whose side last won at Chelsea in 1990 before Kane was born, told a press conference on Thursday that his star striker had made remarkable progress.

“We need to assess him. He is very positive and he is doing very well. Every day he is improving,” said Pochettino.

“We need to assess in the next few days. It’s difficult now to say yes or no. I cannot say no, but I cannot say yes.

“Maybe next weekend. But the most important (thing) is that we are so positive about his recovery, and we are doing fantastic, and we are so happy.

“After Bournemouth, everybody believed it would be a long period out, but the resolution has been fantastic.”

Chelsea desperately need a win as they are five points adrift of Tottenham, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League spot, with both clubs having eight matches remaining.


Former French President, Sarkozy To Face Corruption Trial

FILE COPY Former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy during the LR National Council in Paris. LIONEL BONAVENTURE / AFP


Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been ordered to stand trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling involving a judge from whom he sought information about an investigation, a legal source told AFP on Thursday.

Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog and former judge Gilbert Azibert must also stand trial in the case dating back to 2014, the source said, confirming a report in French daily Le Monde.

According to prosecutors, Sarkozy’s lawyer tried to get information from Azibert over the status of a campaign financing investigation.

In that inquiry, Sarkozy was suspected of accepting illicit payments from the L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

He was cleared in 2013 of taking advantage of the elderly woman, but wiretaps on Sarkozy’s phone suggested he had discussed with Herzog giving Azibert, a magistrate from a top appeals court, a job in Monaco in exchange for information on the Bettencourt case.

Sarkozy has argued that the job never materialised, meaning he is not guilty of anything, but investigators believe the deal fell through because the former president and his lawyer learned their phones were being tapped.

Herzog and Azibert are also facing charges of violation of confidentiality.

The decision is the latest legal problem for Sarkozy, whose attempt to mount a comeback for the presidency failed in November 2016, when he could not secure the backing of his own party during primaries.

Last week the former president, who already faces a trial for illegal campaign financing in his 2012 re-election campaign, was charged with accepting millions of euros in funding from late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.


Kenya Court Fines Minister, Police Chief In New Showdown

Court Jails Three Men For Fraud
File photo


A Kenyan court fined the interior minister and police chief Thursday after they defied orders to produce an opposition politician in court, who was instead deported for the second time in two months.

A prominent but unelected politician with the National Super Alliance (NASA), Miguna Miguna was thrust into the spotlight after his deportation last month, and his attempted return to Kenya this week has seen the nation gripped by political theatrics.

As Miguna was held at the airport for two days over the immigration spat, the high court twice ordered Interior Minister Fred Matiangi, Police Chief Joseph Boinnet and a top immigration official to produce him in court.

Both orders were disregarded and Miguna was put on a flight to Dubai late Wednesday.

High Court Judge George Odunga fined the three men $2,000 (1,600 euros) each, saying they had “violated the constitution for failing to obey the rule of law and court orders.”

A growing battle between government and the judiciary — since the Supreme Court annulled President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election victory last year — has seen authorities ignore several court orders.

Miguna’s first expulsion came after he was arrested for treason for taking part in the mock swearing-in of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who insisted he was the rightful victor of last year’s elections.

The interior ministry said Miguna had forfeited his Kenyan citizenship by obtaining Canadian citizenship several years ago — at a time when dual citizenship was not allowed.

In February a court ordered authorities to allow Miguna’s return, and issue him with a travel document or allow him to enter on his Canadian passport, pending the hearing of a petition he had filed to defend his Kenyan citizenship.

However, when Miguna arrived on Monday, he refused to apply for a six-month visa, enter on his Canadian passport or fill out forms to regularise his nationality.

“He declined to sign entry documents and tore them (up). He stayed here for two days and each time they were taken to him he shouted back that he is a Kenyan,” an immigration official said on condition of anonymity.

On Monday, airport police attacked and injured several reporters covering the event in an incident captured in video footage and condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In a statement from Dubai, Miguna said he had been detained in a toilet for two days at Kenya’s main international airport, and alleged officers had wrestled him to the ground and injected him with an unknown substance “until I passed out”.

The incident comes some three weeks after Odinga and Kenyatta’s surprise reconciliation following the bruising electoral season.

Around 100 people died, mostly at the hands of police, during the election turmoil, according to rights groups.


Rossi Slams Pressure On Himself, Buffon To Retire

FILE PHOTO Movistar Yamaha MotoGP’s Italian rider Valentino Rossi (46) rides his Yamaha ahead of Repsol Honda Team’s Spanish rider Marc Marquez (93) during the 2018 Qatar Moto GP Grand Prix at the Losail International Circuit in Lusail, north of Doha, on March 18, 2018.                            KARIM JAAFAR / AFP


Motorcycling ace Valentino Rossi has slammed critics of himself and fellow Italian Gianluigi Buffon who are defying the years in their sports.

Rossi, 39, has signed a new two-year contract with Yahama and will now remain in the sport until at least 2020. His existing contract runs out at the end of 2018, his 23rd season.

Goalkeeper Buffon has been criticised for performing a U-turn on his international retirement after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup and making himself available at the age of 40.

“I feel I’m still at the top and this boosts me. I advise Buffon to follow my example. People enjoy saying we’re finished,” Rossi told Thursday’s edition of Gazzetta Dello Sport.

“Buffon absolutely must continue, if he wants to. I think he knows if he can still be at the top.

“It’s easier to say that someone’s finished, instead of recognising their balls and whether they still have them.

“There are two types of people: those who appreciate and enjoy someone else’s greatness, and those who are jealous and rub their own inferiority on others.

“In Italy, it’s the fashionable thing to do.”

Rossi finished third at the first Grand Prix of the season in Qatar this month as he targets a tenth world title and eighth in the MotoGP category. His last world title was in 2009.

And he insisted he remains as motivated as when he started racing in 1996.

“So many things have remained, I won’t say the same, but similar, especially the desire to drive the bike and that experience when I have a good race, the taste I feel,” he said.

“To go down the track, alone, with your bike is always special. To try to win a race, the world championship.

“In the last few years, I have really liked going to the races to work with my team, to give my best from Thursday to Sunday, having put all the little details in place.”

Australia Coach Lehmann To Quit After South Africa Series



A tearful Darren Lehmann said on Thursday he would quit as coach of the scandal-tainted Australia cricket team after the fourth and final Test of the ongoing series in South Africa.

“This will be my last Test as head coach of the Australian cricket team,” Lehmann told a press conference on the eve of the match.

“Saying goodbye to the players was the toughest thing I have ever had to do.

“After seeing events in the media today with Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, the feeling is that Australian cricket needs to move forward and this is the right thing to do.

“I really felt for Steve and as you see I’m crying in front of the media. All the players are really hurting.”

Lehmann, who was due to leave the job after the 2019 Ashes series in England, is quitting despite being cleared of any role in the ball-tampering scandal that has rocked the sport.

His decision follows 12-month bans given to captain Smith and vice-captain David Warner for the roles they played in a plot to cheat in Cape Town last Saturday during the third Test.

Opening batsman Bancroft was banned for nine months for his part in the affair.

“As a team we know we’ve let so many people down and for that we’re truly sorry,” added the 48-year-old Lehmann.

“The players involved have been handed down very serious sentences and they know they must face the consequences. They have made a grave mistake but they are not bad people.”

 ‘Taken its toll’ 

Lehmann said the scandal had affected him and his family.

“My family and I have copped a lot of abuse over the last week and it’s taken its toll,” added the 48-year-old Lehmann.

“I am ultimately responsible for the culture of the team and I’ve been thinking about my position for a while.

“Despite telling media yesterday that I’m not resigning, after viewing Steve and Cameron’s hurting, it is only fair that I make this decision.”

Lehmann was hailed as a saviour when he took over in 2013, but critics now accuse him of overseeing a toxic culture that has dented the reputation of the famed Baggy Green cap.

After being appointed, Lehmann’s response when asked to list his top three priorities was telling.

“Probably win, win, win, for a start,” he told reporters.

Cricket Australia (CA) had other ideas when it gave him the job.

“Discipline, consistency of behaviour and accountability for performance are all key ingredients that need to improve,” chief executive James Sutherland said at the time.

If part of Lehmann’s brief was to improve the Australian team’s behaviour, there is little doubt he has failed.

Players were once considered role models for children, but the situation has become so bad that CA is setting up an independent review into the team’s conduct and culture.

Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has weighed in to criticise the practice of sledging — taunting opponents verbally with the aim of distracting them.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation senior cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said the coach had to accept some blame for an “arrogant” team culture where certain players felt cheating was preferable to losing honourably.

“He’s done a very good job with the side but has a very narrow view of the way players should conduct themselves,” Maxwell said.

Lehmann became a national coach after Australia sacked the first foreigner to hold the post, South African Mickey Arthur, on the eve of an Ashes series.

A respected former batsman who played 27 Tests and 117 one-day internationals for Australia, Lehmann was seen as an antidote to the disciplinarian Arthur.

Australia lost Lehmann’s first Ashes series in charge but later in 2013, after he had stamped his mark on the team, they crushed England 5-0 in ruthless fashion.

The Australians have been successful under him, with a Test record of 30 wins, 19 losses and eight draws.


Messi Returns To Training With Barcelona

FILE PHOTO Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi.    PHOTO: Pau Barrena / AFP


Lionel Messi returned to training with Barcelona on Thursday to offer the Catalans a boost with less than a week to go before their Champions League clash against Roma.

Messi missed Argentina’s two internationals over the last week due to a hamstring strain, although he did train in the 2-0 win over Italy last Friday and Tuesday’s 6-1 humiliation by Spain.

“Messi took part in a part of training with the squad,” said Barca on their Twitter account.

The 30-year-old five-time world player of the year joined other Barca stars just back from international duty.

With Barca enjoying an 11-point lead over Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, where they are unbeaten all season, Messi may be rested for Saturday’s trip to Sevilla to give him more time to recover ahead of the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Roma on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde had said he was feeling “calm” with regards Messi’s potentially availability.

“He has a slight problem but we hope that it’s not serious,” he said.


Lehmann Fears For Disgraced Players’ Health After Scandal

James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia, speaks to the media after the team was caught cheating in the Sunfoil Test Series between Australia and South Africa on March 27, 2018.  GULSHAN KHAN / AFP


Australia coach Darren Lehmann said Wednesday he fears for the health of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft after they were suspended and sent home in disgrace following the ball-tampering scandal.

Lehmann, who has been cleared of any involvement in the plot which led to Bancroft using sandpaper to scratch the surface of the ball before hiding the evidence down his trousers, told reporters that the three players are “not bad people”.

“The players involved have been handed down very serious sentences and they know they must face the consequences. They’ve made a grave mistake but they’re not bad people,” said Lehmann in his first public comments since the scandal broke during the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday.

“As a coach, you feel for them as people. They are hurting and I feel for them and their families. I hope the media and the fans don’t forget that. There is a human side to this.

“They have made a mistake as everyone else, including myself, has made mistakes in the past. They are young men and I hope people will give them a second chance. Their health and well-being is extremely important to us.”

Lehmann also said the finding that he had not known about the ball tampering plan was correct.

“The coaches and support staff had no prior knowledge. The first I saw of it was on that screen,” insisted the 48-year-old.

Regarding scepticism about three players devising a plan without others knowing in a small dressing room at Newlands, Lehmann said there were several rooms in the players’ area, including a dining room, where they could have spoken.

Despite his sympathy for the banned trio, Lehmann admitted that the culture of the Australian team, often viewed as ‘win at all costs’, has to change.

“We need to change how we play and the boundaries within which we play,” he said.

“The team has been seen quite negatively in recent times and there is a need for us to change some of the philosophies about the way we play.

“Previously we’ve butted heads on the line but that’s not the way for us to go about playing cricket going forward.”

Asked how that could happen in view of the fact that he was viewed as one of the instigators of Australia’s aggressive style of play, he said he would not resign but admitted: “I need to change.”

Lehmann said the Australians could perhaps learn from the way a team like New Zealand played their cricket.

“We do respect the opposition but we push the boundaries on the ground. So we’ve got to make sure of respecting the game, its traditions and understanding the way the game holds itself around the world.”

Training ahead of the fourth and final Test which starts at the Wanderers on Friday was cancelled on Wednesday.

“We’re not a hundred percent mentally right but we’re representing our country and we’ve got to get the ball rolling by playing the best cricket we possibly can,” said Lehmann.


Pakistan’s First Transgender News Anchor Makes Headline

FILE  Pakistan’s first transgender news anchor Marvia Malik, 21, prepares before reading the news on air for private channel Kohenoor in Lahore. 


A Pakistani TV channel has put the country’s first transgender news anchor on the air, a watershed cultural moment for the marginalised community in the deeply conservative country. 

Marvia Malik, a former model who appeared on the Lahore-based private broadcaster Kohenoor for the first time last Friday, told AFP she has received “unprecedented love and support” since landing the job.

“My family never accepted or owned me,” she said, adding that the rift drove her to seek a better future in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital.

“Here I received unprecedented love and support from everyone that I never got from my own family,” she said, adding that the positive response only escalated once she went on air for the daily broadcast.

Transgenders — also known in Pakistan as “khawajasiras”, an umbrella term denoting a third sex that includes transsexuals, transvestites and eunuchs — have long fought for their rights in the patriarchal Islamic country.

In 2009 Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex. Last year the first transgender passport was issued, while several have also run in elections.

But they live daily as pariahs, often reduced to begging and prostitution, subjected to extortion and discrimination or targeted for violence.

Malik, who declined to confirm her age to AFP but is reportedly around 21, said she hoped to use her platform to urge people to treat one another as human beings first, without discrimination.

A journalism graduate from Punjab University, she said she hopes eventually to enter politics herself or form a non-governmental organisation aimed at promoting gender rights.

If she becomes “financially sound”, she added, she may even seek to establish her own TV channel.

Many transgenders in Pakistan earn their living as dancers at weddings or parties and, sometimes, in more clandestine ways.

Her employers at Kohenoor admitted that Malik had stunned them while interviewing for the job by turning a question around on them.

“She asked, ‘Would you want to see me a beggar, a sex worker or dancing at the cultural festivals or give me a respectable job in your channel?'” news director Bilal Ashraf told AFP.

“Her question stunned us really, and we had no reply.”

It forced them to “devise a policy to welcome, accept and own everyone in our channel without any discrimination,” he said, adding: “We don’t bother with where our channel will stand in the ratings by doing this.”

So far the response has been positive, with Pakistanis widely heralding the move on social media.

But transgenders remain targets. Late Tuesday a transgender was shot dead along with a friend in the northwestern city of Peshawar, police told AFP.

Farzana Riaz, head of rights group TransAction, said 55 transgenders have been murdered during the past five years.

“We want protection from the government from this continued persecution,” she said.

Facebook Revamps Privacy Settings Amid Data Breach Outcry

FILE COPY Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP


Facebook on Wednesday unveiled new privacy settings aiming to give its users more control over how their data is shared, following an outcry over the hijacking of personal information at the giant social network.

The updates include easier access to Facebook’s user settings and tools to easily search for, download and delete personal data stored by Facebook.

Facebook said a new privacy shortcuts menu will allow users to quickly increase account security, manage who can see their information and activity on the site and control advertisements they see.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find and that we must do more to keep people informed,” chief privacy officer Erin Egan and deputy general counsel Ashlie Beringer said in a blog post.

“We’re taking additional steps in the coming weeks to put people more in control of their privacy.”

The new features follow fierce criticism after it was revealed millions of Facebook users’ personal data was harvested by a British firm linked to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — although Facebook said the changes have been “in the works for some time.”

Earlier this month, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed political consulting company Cambridge Analytica obtained profiles on 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher’s personality prediction app.

The app was downloaded by 270,000 people, but also scooped up their friends’ data without consent — as was possible under Facebook’s rules at the time.

Egan and Beringer also announced updates to Facebook’s terms of service and data policy to improve transparency about how the site collects and uses data.

Deepening tech crisis 

Facebook’s move comes as authorities around the globe investigate how Facebook handles and shares private data, and with its shares have tumbled more than 15 percent, wiping out tens of billions in market value.

The crisis also threatens the Silicon Valley tech industry whose business model revolves around data collected on internet users.

On Tuesday, tech shares led a broad slump on Wall Street, with an index of key tech stocks losing nearly six percent.

The US Federal Trade Commission this week said it had launched a probe into whether the social network violated consumer protection laws or a 2011 court-approved agreement on protecting private user data.

US lawmakers were seeking to haul Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington to testify on the matter.

Authorities in Britain have seized data from Cambridge Analytica in their investigation, and EU officials have warned of consequences for Facebook.

Facebook has apologized for the misappropriation of data and vowed to fix the problem.

Facebook took out full-page ads in nine major British and US newspapers on Sunday to apologize to users.

“We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t we don’t deserve it,” Zuckerberg said in the ads.