Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 23 2015 2:35 PM

Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s Lawyers Say 68 Percent of Potential Jurors Already Think He’s Guilty

The attorneys defending accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev have requested for the fourth time that his trial be moved out of the city, citing a survey of prospective jurors that indicated a high level of potential bias. From the New York Times:

Of the 1,373 prospective jurors who filled out screening questionnaires this month, the defense said, 68 percent said they already believed that Mr. Tsarnaev was guilty.
“This kid is from another country and kills innocent people!” one person wrote.
The defense also said that 69 percent of the potential jurors had said they had a personal connection to the case.

Jury selection is already underway, and taking longer than expected; opening statements were planned Jan. 26 but will be pushed back to an as-yet-undetermined date.

The evidence of Tsarnaev’s guilt appears substantial, but if he’s convicted his jury will also have to weigh a variety of “mitigating and aggravating factors” to decide whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. This presents a further complication—many Massachusetts residents oppose the death penalty, and individuals who say they’re not willing to vote for capital punishment won’t be seated on the jury. A September 2013 poll found that only 33 percent of Boston residents said Tsarnaev should be executed if convicted.

Tsarnaev is currently on trial only for charges related to the marathon bombing. He is also accused of murder in the shooting death of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer.

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Jan. 23 2015 12:29 PM

Wealthy Russian Official Says Russians Will “Eat Less” for Putin During Crisis

Russia’s first deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, says that the country’s ongoing economic crisis will only rally its citizens behind President Vladimir Putin and that they would sacrifice their own comfort before supporting his removal. From the AP:

Shuvalov, who is believed to be one of the richest men in the government, said that what he considers the West's attempts to oust Putin will only unite the nation further.
"When a Russian feels any foreign pressure, he will never give up his leader," Shuvalov said. "Never. We will survive any hardship in the country — eat less food, use less electricity."

As noted, Shuvalov is very wealthy, and versions of this picture (which an opposition-linked newspaper says depicts Shuvalov’s Moscow-area home) have been circulating on Twitter since he made his remarks about belt-tightening.


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Seems like Shuvalov will probably make it through the hungry times OK—and if things get especially tough, he can sell the properties he reportedly owns in London and Austria.

Jan. 23 2015 10:12 AM

Sierra Leone Lifts Ebola Quarantines as Vaccines Nearly Ready for Clinical Trial

Citing a “downward trend” in new Ebola infections, Sierra Leone is lifting nationwide quarantine restrictions that have been in place since last summer. From AFP:

"Restrictions on movement will be eased to support economic activity. As such, there will no longer be any district or chiefdom level restrictions on movement," President Ernest Bai Koroma said in an address to the nation late Thursday.
The west African nation of six million has restricted travel for around half its population, sealing off six of its 14 districts and numerous tribal chiefdoms since announcing a state of emergency in July in response to an outbreak which has killed more than 3,000 Sierra Leoneans.

Slowing infection rates have been previously reported in neighboring Liberia and Guinea, the other countries most affected by the crisis. The latest figures:

Liberia, which had a peak of over 300 new cases a week in August and September, registered just eight last week, while there were only 20 confirmed cases in Guinea last week against 45 the week before.
The figure for Sierra Leone was 117 last week against 184 the week before, the WHO said, but added that the west of the country remained a problem area.

In other hopeful news, the “first clinical trial to test the effectiveness of Ebola vaccines” is set to start in Liberia in two weeks, the New York Times says. (Human trials of various vaccines to test their safety have been ongoing for some time.) A Liberian trial of ZMapp, a drug that treats those already infected by the virus (and that has been given to some of the high-profile patients who’ve recovered from the disease), will also begin soon.

Jan. 23 2015 10:07 AM

The New King of Saudi Arabia Is Starting His Job on One Hell of a Week

Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who became the seventh king of Saudi Arabia on Thursday after the death of his brother Abdullah, is starting his new job on one hell of a week. The new king will immediately have to contend with yesterday’s collapse of the Yemeni government in what the Saudis view as an Iranian-backed coup right in their backyard.

In addition to the Yemen situation, Salman has to deal with ISIS—Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a 600-mile-long wall along its northern border with Iraq to keep the group out—and manage his kingdom’s current risky strategy of keeping oil production high to intentionally push down global prices. Also: There’s renewed international criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations after a prominent liberal blogger was sentenced to 1,000 lashes. And the coming months could also bring a comprehensive international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program—an agreement Saudi Arabia is unlikely to back. The country has put out strong hints that it is considering a military nuclear program of its own.  

There’s little to indicate that Salman will handle any of these issues much differently than his older half brother. The two were close political allies and were both considered relative moderates.

The 79-year-old Salman is believed to be the 25th of the 45 sons of King Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s founder. So far, the Saudi crown has passed from brother to brother in rough age order rather than from parent to child like in other monarchies, meaning that the last few kings have all been very old men with relatively short reigns. Salman only got the job because the two crown princes ahead of him died before Abdullah. Thanks to the polygamy of Saudi royals—Abdulaziz had at least 22 wives—the country now has more than 7,000 princes.

The new king is one of the “Sudairi Seven,” an influential group of brothers named for their mother, who hailed from a powerful clan, which also included former King Fahd. Salman was the governor of Riyadh from 1963 until 2011, a period during which it transformed from a backwater of 200,000 people into a major world city of more than 7 million. He then served as defense minister for three years, a job he has now turned over to his son Mohammad. He and his immediate family also own the media group that publishes the influential pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. He is very, very rich.

Salman is a defense hawk. There are no signs he disagreed with Saudi Arabia’s occupation of Bahrain, for instance, and Saudi Arabia aggressively supported the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government during his tenure as defense minister.

Domestically, he has a reputation as a modernizer from his tenure in Riyadh and is relatively moderate on social issues. (This is Saudi Arabia we’re talking about, so that means ensuring that women who try to drive are arrested by the regular police rather than the much harsher religious police.) He’s also famed for his punctuality, personal discipline, and role as the family enforcer, maintaining a private jail for misbehaving princes.

Salman’s health is more of a question mark. Reports of his ailments range from a bad back to some form of dementia. There had recently been reports that the Abdullah-Salman relationship had soured and that the king was trying to undermine his heir’s claim to the throne. But the transition has gone pretty smoothly, and likely due to Salman’s age, his successor has already been chosen. The relatively sprightly 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons, moved into place as crown prince after Abdullah took the unprecedented step of naming him deputy heir last year.

The most interesting development in the day since Abdullah died may actually be that Salman reached into the next generation, appointing his nephew, interior minister Mohammad Bin Nayaf, as the new deputy crown prince and second in line to the throne. This might have rankled some of his own sons, who include Sultan Bin Salman, a former astronaut, but so far no grudges have gone public. 

For now, despite the regional turmoil surrounding the Sauds, the family’s odd succession process seems to be humming along. But the long-anticipated day when a son of Abdulaziz no longer rules the kingdom will soon be here.

Jan. 23 2015 9:37 AM

Yet Another Reminder to Be Skeptical of Stories From North Korea

The prominent North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk this week recanted part of his story of escape from one of the country’s infamous prison camps. Shin’s story was recounted in Blaine Harden’s best-selling book Escape From Camp 14, and he had been one of the most prominent witnesses for the U.N. commission on human rights in North Korea, which issued a scathing report on the country in 2013. 

In his previous testimony, Shin told of being born in the infamous, sprawling Camp 14, one of North Korea’s harshest and most secure prison camps, where he lived until escaping in 2005. He is believed to be the only person born in a prison camp to have escaped the country.

Shin now says that some of the events he described actually took place at another camp where he had been transferred for a time. He also now says he had escaped from another camp, Camp 18, two times, once making it as far as China before being sent to Camp 14. Descriptions of torture he claimed he suffered when he was 13, he now says happened when he was 20, following his escape attempt.

Harden says he plans to revise the book and told the New York Times that Shin hadn’t realized that changing some of the details would be a problem. He also says the bulk of the book remains true, including disturbing details such as jailers torturing Shin by slowly lowering him over a fire on a hook. Shin has injuries consistent with torture, and several North Korea experts  vetted his story before it had been published.

In an apology on his Facebook page, Shin writes, “We tell ourselves that it’s okay to not reveal every little detail, and that it might not matter if certain parts aren’t clarified. Nevertheless this particular past of mine that I so badly wanted to cover up can no longer be hidden, nor do I want it to be.”

It will certainly be hard to consider Shin a reliable narrator from this point on, even if we take him at his word that he took an understandable if misguided approach to storytelling rather than committing willful fabulism. But does this case tell us anything larger about North Korea?

In an op-ed for the Guardian, Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who headed the U.N. commission on human rights, notes that Shin was one of more than 200 witnesses who testified. Even if Shin were making up his entire story, which seems doubtful, the notion that it should cast doubt on the use of torture by the North Korean government is ridiculous. (Other than the North Korean government, I don’t actually see anyone making that argument.)

Kirby also suggests that the international media is acting as an unwitting agent of North Korean propaganda by focusing its attention on the veracity of Shin’s story rather than on human rights in North Korea. He puts the affair in the same category of distraction as the trivial, and often fictional, news-of-the-weird stories like Kim Jong-un’s uncle being fed to dogs or North Korean men being forced to get Dear Leader’s haircut.

But I don’t agree. If the Shin affair does finally lead to some reflection on the credence given to single-source stories out of North Korea, it can only be a good thing. The reason for the persistence of bogus North Korea news is it’s a place of intense international interest, where no one can do any reporting. Stories from defectors are often taken at face value and spread through re-reporting from the South Korean media to the West. And that’s the best-case scenario: The dog story came from a Chinese parody site

News outlets feel uniquely confortable running thinly sourced stories or pure speculation about North Korea, given that it’s not exactly possible to travel there to verify. Plus, the North Korean government doesn’t have the credibility to call out the international media for inaccuracies.

We know about the North Korean regime’s use of torture and its network of gulags not because of one defector’s account, but because of the accounts of hundreds as well as satellite imagery. The case is strong enough that problems with one person’s testimony won’t discredit it. That’s unfortunately not the case with a lot of what gets reported about the country. 

Jan. 22 2015 9:53 PM

Someone Broke King Tut’s 3,000-Year-Old Mask and Superglued It Back Together. But Who?

Oh, the intrigue! A bit of a modern day whodunit is brewing these days at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that is part Indiana Jones, part Mr. Bean. The two mysterious questions that need to be answered are: Who broke the 3,300-year-old beard off the famed burial mask of the King Tutankhamun? And even more interesting: Who decided to simply superglue it back on?

If there were a straight answer to these questions this story might be over before it started. But, thankfully, museum conservators appear to be engaged in a fair bit of palace intrigue, pointing figures, and pushing alternative theories about the damaged artifact. As you can imagine, King Tut is a pretty big deal in Egypt. The exhibit is a tourist juggernaut and, as the BBC points out, when Tutankhamun’s intact tomb was discovered in 1922 it sparked a worldwide fascination with archaeology and ancient Egypt.

So what happened to the blue and gold mask? The Associated Press takes a shot at cracking the case. Here’s what they found:

Three of the museum's conservators reached by telephone on Wednesday gave differing accounts of when the incident occurred last year, and whether the beard was knocked off by accident while the mask's case was being cleaned, or was removed because it was loose. They agree however that orders came from above to fix it quickly and that an inappropriate adhesive was used. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals.
"Unfortunately he used a very irreversible material — epoxy has a very high property for attaching and is used on metal or stone but I think it wasn't suitable for an outstanding object like Tutankhamun's golden mask," one conservator said. "The mask should have been taken to the conservation lab but they were in a rush to get it displayed quickly again and used this quick drying, irreversible material," the conservator added. The conservator said there is now a visible gap between the face and the beard. "Now you can see a layer of transparent yellow."
Another museum conservator, who was present at the time of the repair, said that epoxy had dried on the face of the boy king's mask and that a colleague used a spatula to remove it, leaving scratches. The first conservator, who inspects the artifact regularly, also saw the scratches and said it was clear that they had been made by a tool used to scrape off the epoxy…
Jackie Rodriguez, a tourist who witnessed the repair work on the beard in late August, provided a photo to The Associated Press showing a museum employee holding it in place as the glue sets. "The whole job did look slapstick," she said. "It was disconcerting given the procedure occurred in front of a large crowd and seemingly without the proper tools."

Mahmoud Halwagy, who became the museum’s director in October, said the damage had not occurred on his watch and experts were investigating the broken beard evidence and would be filing a public report, at some point. Not to tell anyone how to do their job, but might want to give Jackie Rodriguez a call.

Jan. 22 2015 6:50 PM

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Dies

Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has died, according to Saudi Arabian state TV. The news of the King’s death ricocheted around social media Thursday but was initially denied by journalists and other members of the Saudi royal family. King Abdullah was admitted to the hospital last month for pneumonia, and an announcement of the leader’s death came early Friday (local time). King Abdullah, thought to be in his 90s when he died, will be succeeded by his brother Crown Prince Salman. You can read more from Slate’s Joshua Keating on the palace politics of Saudi succession.

King Abdullah was seen as a modernizing force in Saudi Arabia when he came to power following his brother’s death in 2005. The new king had been the country’s de facto leader since 1995, after his brother, then–King Fahd, suffered a debilitating stroke. Along with pushing incremental reforms that gave greater opportunity to women in the kingdom, Abdullah advocated a more assertive Saudi presence in the Middle East—attempting to counter Shiite Iran’s influence.

Here’s more from the Associated Press on Abdullah’s loosening of restrictions placed on women:

Abdullah for the first time gave women seats on the Shura Council, an unelected body that advises the king and government. He promised women would be able to vote and run in 2015 elections for municipal councils, the only elections held in the country. He appointed the first female deputy minister in a 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule.
One of his most ambitious projects was a Western-style university that bears his name, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. Men and women share classrooms and study together inside the campus, a major departure in a country where even small talk between the sexes in public can bring a warning from the morality police.
The changes seemed small from the outside but had a powerful resonance. Small splashes of variety opened in the kingdom — color and flash crept into the all-black abayas women must wear in public; state-run TV started playing music, forbidden for decades; book fairs opened their doors to women writers and some banned books.

“Abdullah’s reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world, making him appear at times to be shifting from one to the other,” the New York Times writes. “He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded … But in at least two telephone calls he castigated President Obama for encouraging democracy in the Middle East, saying it was dangerous. And he showed no tolerance in his country for the sort of dissent unfolding elsewhere.”

*This post has been updated.

Jan. 22 2015 6:04 PM

Chris Christie Has Been Given 77 Diet Books as Gifts Since Taking Office  

On Thursday, reported that New Jersey governor Chris Christie's office has been keeping track of all the presents that have been sent to Christie since he was sworn in. The records, which cover more than 1,100 gifts, are a cesspool of fat-shaming passive aggression, including “virtually every diet book, CD, DVD and weight loss kit available.” Of around 600 books, 77 pertained to dieting, exercise, or bariatric surgery. (Christie, who has long struggled with his weight, underwent the procedure in February of 2013. He has repeatedly asked people to respect his privacy in the matter.)

The titles Christie received included "The New Atkins For You," "Morbid Obesity: Will You Allow It To Kill You?" and the "The Godfather"-referencing "Leave the Cannoli - Take the Weights."
Others included "The Aerobic House Cleaning Lifestyle," "The Macho Man Diet," "This Ain't No Diet Book," and "Faith & Fat Loss."

Everyday citizens weren’t the only ones concerned about Christie’s health. The governor also enjoyed the solicitous, personalized attentions of Dr. Mehmet Oz, South Beach Diet creator Dr. Arthur Agatston, and Paleo guru Robb Wolfe, each of whom contributed a self-help tome to the database.  

To state the obvious, this is very rude! Nor do we have evidence that fat-shaming is anything but wildly counterproductive: Those who are repeatedly told they are overweight are more likely to gain additional pounds than those permitted to go about their business in peace. Most important: Why does the governor’s appearance strike these snarky Santas as such a big deal?

On the other hand, Christie is one of the rudest politicians on the planet, as you can see in these eight videos of him bullying various reporters, protestors, Navy SEALs, and White House aides. So perhaps the gift-givers' reasoning is that he understands the language of insult. Still, were I a Christie supporter, I’d run out and buy him a copy of a different kind of self-help book: Dr. Raymond Tafrate’s guide to anger management.

Jan. 22 2015 5:53 PM

House and Senate Are Considering Bills to Allow Hemp Nationwide

Republican Congressman Thomas Massie is a man on a mission, and that mission is to get farmers in his home state of Kentucky and across the nation growing hemp again. Massie is a staunch libertarian with a disdain for intrusive federal regulation, and his Industrial Hemp Farming Act would chip off a bit of federal power by allowing cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States.

While Massie himself is something of an outsider in the Republican Party, having voted twice against John Boehner for Speaker of the House, this particular cause is moving further into the mainstream. His new bill boasts 47 co-sponsors*, forming a surprising coalition of lawmakers from both parties and suggesting there could be a groundswell of support for allowing marijuana's strait-laced cousin back into American fields.

Industrial hemp can be made into a variety of products, including paper, food, clothing, and cosmetics. It does not contain enough of marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, THC, to get anyone high from smoking it. Rep. Massie has taken to tweeting about the bill with the hashtag #ThinkRopeNotDope. 

Massie's work on hemp has attracted support from such far-removed corners of Congress that its co-sponsors include both liberal Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota and conservative Republican Don Young of Alaska; the Senate companion bill has been introduced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul (both fellow Kentuckians), along with Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. With all that bipartisan good feeling, a bill legalizing hemp is shaping up to be one of the best chances to unite an ideologically-divided Congress in 2015.

*Correction, Jan. 22, 2015: This post originally misstated the number of co-sponsors of Massie's bill.

Jan. 22 2015 5:10 PM

Tom Brady Denies Deflating Balls in Surreal Press Conference

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took nearly 30 minutes of aggressive questions about football pressure from reporters this afternoon in the latest surreal episode of the Ballghazi scandal that is currently gripping (get it?) a nation in turmoil.

Brady said that he selected the footballs he wished to use before they were presented to an official for approval ahead of Sunday’s AFC championship game and that he did not deflate them after they were OK’d. “I didn't alter the ball in any way,” Brady said, adding that he's also not aware of any other ball-deflation “wrongdoing” by Patriots employees. He attested that though he prefers balls inflated to 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure (the lower end of the limit allowed by the NFL), he didn’t notice that Sunday’s footballs were particularly soft (or that they were harder in the second half—it’s been reported that they were reinflated at halftime)*.

Other things that were said:

  • “When I pick those balls out, at that point, to me they’re perfect. I don’t want anyone touching the balls after that, I don’t anyone want rubbing them, putting any air in them, taking any air out, to me those balls are perfect and that’s what I expect when I go out on the field.”
  • “I don’t sit there and try to squeeze it.”
  • “I’m not squeezing the balls. That’s not part of my process.”
  • “This isn’t ISIS.” (About the relative importance of the ball controversy.)

The press conference took place in front of a backdrop advertising Gillette’s FlexBall razor.

It was weird.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2015: This post originally described underinflated balls as lighter than properly inflated balls. While this is technically true, the balls likely wouldn't feel lighter if underinflated since air doesn't weigh that much.