Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Dec. 17 2014 10:50 PM

Nigeria Sentences 54 of Its Own Soldiers to Death for Refusing to Fight Boko Haram

Nigeria on Wednesday sentenced 54 of its own soldiers to death for refusing to fight the Islamist group Boko Haram. “The soldiers, who were found guilty of mutiny, were accused of refusing to help recapture three towns that had been seized by Boko Haram in August,” according to the BBC. The convicted soldiers will face a firing squad, according to their lawyer.

“[Nigerian] troops regularly complain that they are outgunned by Boko Haram, they are not paid in full and they are abandoned on the battlefield without enough ammunition or food,” according to the Associated Press. “Twelve soldiers were sentenced to death in September for mutiny and attempted murder of the commanding officer in the counter-insurgency. They blamed him for the deaths of an unknown number of soldiers ambushed and killed after they were ordered to drive at night on a road frequently attacked by the militants.”

“All the soldiers had denied the charges and the sentence is subject to approval by senior officers,” the BBC reports.

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Dec. 17 2014 9:33 PM

Another North Korea Movie Starring Steve Carell Just Got Canned Before It Was Even Shot

All of sudden making movies set in North Korea doesn’t have quite the same allure for Hollywood studios. Sony Pictures is obviously already on the financial hook for The Interview, which was in the can and scheduled for a Dec. 25 nationwide release before it was called off on Wednesday. New Regency Pictures, which announced in October its plan to produce a film set in North Korea starring Steve Carell, reportedly took a look a closer look at the North Korea/Hollywood relationship on Wednesday and thought—nah. It’s canned the fledgling project. So much for Hollywood’s leadership with the whole not-letting-the-cyberterrorists-win thing.

“A source close to the project confirmed that production company New Regency had stopped development on the untitled film after Twentieth Century Fox pulled distribution plans,” according to Huffington Post. The movie was to going to be based on the graphic novel Pyongyang, and Gore Verbinski had been set to direct the film adaptation, which was scheduled to start shooting in March. Presumably not in North Korea.  

Dec. 17 2014 7:02 PM

U.S. Officials Say North Korean Government a Key Player in Sony Hack

The utterly crippling hack of Sony Pictures was, almost from the beginning, thought to be the work of North Korea. The way the attack was carried out had a number of striking similarities to another cyberattack thought to be engineered by the North Koreans against South Korea last year. On the surface, North Korea also appeared to have a motive: They were pretty angry about, of all things, Sony Pictures’ upcoming—and now canceled—release of the Kim Jong-un–mocking movie The Interview.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reports, U.S. officials have collected enough evidence to finger the North Korean government as a key player in the cyberattack:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers … Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign …
While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack on Sony was both state sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on American soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an intimate knowledge of the company’s computer systems …
It is not clear how the United States came to its determination that the North Korean regime played a central role in the Sony attacks. … Much of North Korea’s hacking is done from China. And while the attack on Sony used some commonly available cybertools, one intelligence official said, “This was of a sophistication that a year ago we would have said was beyond the North’s capabilities.”

Dec. 17 2014 6:09 PM

George Stinney Jr. Exonerated 70 Years After His Execution at 14

In 1944, it took 12 white men 10 minutes to convict 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. for beating two young white girls to death. On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullins vacated the decision, which sent Stinney to the electric chair on what civil rights advocates have said for years was a coerced confession.

In Alcolu, a small South Carolina town, NBC News reports Stinney confessed to beating two girls, ages 11 and 8, with a railroad spike. He weighed 95 pounds when he was arrested, and was so small he had to sit on a phone book in the electric chair when he was executed within three months of the murders.

Civil rights advocates have pushed for the case to be reopened for years, NBC News reported Wednesday. “He is often cited as the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century,” NBC News reports. According to The Grio, his trial lasted around 3 hours, with no witnesses called to his defense. “No physical evidence or trial transcript exists,” The Grio reports.

NBC News notes that “[i]n a 2009 affidavit, Stinney’s sister said she had been with him on the day of the murders and he could not have committed them.”

From The Grio:

Ray Brown, who’s producing a film called 83 Days based on Stinney’s execution timeline, said he was overwhelmed by Wednesday’s ruling.

“It’s never too late for justice,” Brown said. “There’s no statute of limitations on justice. One of the things I can say about South Carolina and I can give them credit for—is that they got it right this time. During a period of time in our nation where we seem to have such a great racial divide, you have a southern state that has decided to admit they made a mistake and correct it.”

Dec. 17 2014 4:22 PM

Sony Cancels The Interview Christmas Release Following Terror Threats

Update 5:05 p.m., Dec. 17, 2014: This post, caption, and headline have been updated to reflect the fact that Sony has canceled the movie's opening.

The biggest theater chains in the U.S. decided not to show Sony Pictures Entertainment’s The Interview on its planned opening night, Dec. 25, following terror threats posted online Tuesday by a group that claims it was also behind the massive hack that leaked internal Sony documents. Sony responded to the move by canceling the planned Christmas release of the film

“[In] light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” the Sony statement read. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

"Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business," the statement continued. Here’s more from it:

Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale—all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Cinemark Holdings Inc., and Carmike Cinemas Inc. backed out on showing the film after Sony Pictures announced on Tuesday it “wouldn’t object” to them doing so. The companies planned to wait to air the movie until after the completion of a federal investigation into the cyberattack on Sony and the terrorist threats that followed it, according to a Wall Street Journal source.

The Interview follows two journalists, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, who work with the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Wall Street Journal reported that government and corporate investigators believe the hackers are “associated with North Korea.” Deadline reports that the threat read in part, “Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.”

On Tuesday the Department of Homeland Security said the threats against movie theaters were not credible, according to the Wall Street Journal.

These four chains alone make up a huge portion of American theaters. From the Wall Street Journal:

Together, the four chains control more than 18,000 of North America’s approximately 40,000 movie screens. Carmike, the fourth-largest U.S. theater chain with more than 2,000 screens, told Sony yesterday that it wouldn’t play the movie, according to people familiar with the matter.

Carmike was the first chain to announce its decision.

The three other chains conferred on a call facilitated by the National Association of Theatre Owners to make their decisions. Reuters reports that the association said in a statement, “We look forward to the time when the responsible criminals are apprehended. Until that happens, individual cinema operators may decide to delay exhibition of the movie.”

 

Dec. 17 2014 3:47 PM

American Just Freed From Cuban Prison Accidentally (?) Sits for Picture in Front of Che Guevara Portrait

American citizen Alan Gross was freed today after five years as a prisoner in Cuba. He was imprisoned for attempting to bring communications equipment to Cuban religious groups.

Che Guevara was a revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro, whose brother Raul continues to lead the regime that imprisoned Gross. Guevara's antipathy for human rights and dissent within Cuba is infamous.

Here's a picture just tweeted by New York Times photographer Stephen Crowley. Note the upper right corner:

Yes, that's Che! And no, I don't know what's going on (wording suggests maybe the picture was taken in Cuba?)—but I've put in inquiries with Gilbert and Zuckman and will update this post if I hear back.

Dec. 17 2014 2:37 PM

Marco Rubio Leads Chorus Opposing Obama’s “Appeasement” of Cuba

Cuban-American Republicans in Congress are not pleased with the president’s move to start normalizing relations with the island nation.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement that the president’s move is “inexplicable” and that he plans to use his perch next Congress as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to try to block the president’s move.

“Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” he said. “As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another Cuban-American Republican from Florida, took a similar stance. He called Obama “the Appeaser-in-Chief” and labeled the spy swap “an egregious miscarriage of justice.”

“President Obama's decision to allow the Castro regime to blackmail the United States and abandon our pro-democracy principles is an outrage,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, was born in Havana. Her family fled the Castro regime when she was 8 years old, and she’s been an outspoken critic of the current regime there. She issued a statement on Wednesday morning saying the president’s move to exchange three Cuban spies for American prisoner Alan Gross is a national security threat.  

“This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles,” she said of the president’s push.

Among the Hill’s Cuban-Americans, there’s bipartisan opposition to the president’s move. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, leveled biting criticism at the president.

“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” he said in his statement.

“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba's opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people,” he continued. “Let us all remind ourselves that an untold number of ordinary people yearning for democracy remain imprisoned by the exact same tormentors that have punished Alan Gross and they, along with all Cubans, deserve a free and liberated Cuba.”

Dec. 17 2014 1:19 PM

Obama Announces Beginning of Normalization of Relations With Cuba

President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that the United States will start the process of normalizing relations with Cuba under a series of changes to U.S. policy toward the communist country.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said.

Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, which have been severed since 1961. The U.S. will also re-establish an embassy in Havana, Obama announced.

“Neither the Cuban, nor the American people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in his statement.

“Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a Communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”

The move comes after Cuba released American USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned since 2009 after trying to deliver communications equipment to religious groups in Cuba. As part of the move, the U.S. also released three Cuban agents who had been imprisoned for more than 15 years.

Obama thanked Pope Francis for urging the release of prisoners on both sides. In what was a surprise announcement after the Gross news came earlier in the day, Obama also said that a top U.S. spy has been released from Cuban prison and is now on U.S. soil, along with Gross.

“Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba and who has been in prison for nearly two decades,” Obama said. “This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States.”

Obama also announced that the State Department would be reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and that the United States will also be taking steps to “increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”

The policy changes also included moves aimed at making travel easier for Americans and allowing American credit and debit cards to be used on the island, as well as increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba.

U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban institutions, and it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba, Obama said.

The president acknowledged that he did not have the power on his own to completely undo the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been codified in law since 1996 and would require congressional action to dismantle.

“As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.

The president spoke with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday, and the New York Times reported that the country would also be releasing 53 political prisoners. Obama also said that Cuba would be taking steps to “provide more access to the Internet for its citizens,” though he did not specify what those steps were. He also acknowledged that serious human rights problems remain in the country.

 “I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cuban should face harassment, or arrests, or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard,” Obama said.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve American interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba towards collapse.”

Dec. 17 2014 10:13 AM

EU Court Rules That Hamas Should Not Be Considered a Terrorist Organization

A European Union court has ruled that Hamas should not be considered a terrorist organization, though the ruling came on procedural grounds—the court has not made a declaration about the nature of the Hamas' activities and goals, but rather ruled that the process by which it was put on the terrorist-group list was flawed. From Haaretz:

The Palestinian terrorist group asserted in its petition that the decision to put it on the EU terror list was carried out without giving it an opportunity for a hearing and without sufficient evidence being presented. The European court accepted the petition based on the precedent of a similar case of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.
The court ruled in its decision that most of the evidence used to put Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations were from open sources – mainly press publications. The court made it clear that the ruling does not say anything substantial about the status of Hamas or the character of the organization's operations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nonetheless denounced the decision, which can be appealed by any EU member state or the European Commission.

Hamas is one of the 59 groups designated as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" by the U.S. State Department.

Dec. 16 2014 10:50 PM

Theater Chain Cancels The Interview Screenings After Terror Threats From Sony Hackers

Carmike Cinemas on Tuesday became the first theater chain to bail on screening The Interview, which was scheduled for release on Christmas Day. The Georgia-based theater operator runs more than 2,500 in the U.S. Carmike’s decision to pull the Sony Pictures comedy about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came after “the same people purporting to have carried out a devastating cyber attack on the movie studio threatened to escalate to physical terrorism surrounding the planned Dec. 25 opening of the Seth Rogen comedy,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Under pressure from local theaters, Sony decided to give theater operators the option not to show the movie.

“Such a move—only nine days before a movie opens—is unprecedented in recent Hollywood history and illustrates the stakes in the ongoing attacks on the Sony Corp. unit,” according to the Journal. “Typically, studios and major theater chains work out plans on where and when a film will play months in advance and those plans can’t be changed once a studio is in the midst of a big marketing campaign.”

“An official with the Department of Homeland Security said the department was analyzing the threat but as yet had found no clear indication of an active plot against theaters,” the New York Times reports. “Tuesday’s [threat] posed an ugly dilemma for Sony and exhibitors: whether to pull 'The Interview,' caving to hackers who have wreaked havoc with Sony’s digital systems for weeks in an attempt to block the release, or to forge ahead, risking possible violence and potential legal liability.”

Earlier, BuzzFeed reported both Franco and Rogen had cancelled the remainder of their media appearances in the run up to the film’s release.

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