Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 29 2015 1:16 PM

Vietnamese Authorities Seize Truck Full of Cats Intended for Eating

This is the kind of viral-ish story that usually deserves skepticism, but it’s being reported by the well-established AFP wire service, and there are pictures:

Thousands of live cats destined "for consumption" have been seized in Hanoi after being smuggled from China, police said Thursday, but their fate still hangs in the balance.
Cat meat, known locally as "little tiger", is an increasingly popular delicacy in Vietnam, and although officially banned is widely available in specialist restaurants.

AFP has in fact reported previously on the underground Vietnamese custom:

Vietnam has forbidden the consumption of cats in an effort to encourage their ownership and keep the capital's rat population under control.
But there are still dozens of restaurants serving cat in Hanoi and it is rare to see felines roaming the streets -- most pet-owners keep them indoors or tied up out of fear of cat thieves.

The AFP reporter who wrote that story is named Cat Barton.

A police officer told AFP that seized, smuggled goods are typically destroyed—i.e., in normal circumstances the cats would be killed—but that these particular animals’ fate has not yet been determined. Below, another image of the seized cats.

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AFP/Getty

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Jan. 29 2015 11:57 AM

Update: Explosion at Mexican Maternity Hospital Reportedly Kills at Least Three

Update, Jan. 29 at 3:30 p.m.: Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera says earlier official reports that at least seven people were killed in a hospital explosion were incorrect. Mancera said the mix-up occurred because officials mistook deaths for injuries, according to CNN.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is reporting that the most recent death toll is three people killed, with 54 people wounded, including 22 children.

Original post: Multiple outlets report that at least seven people have been killed, including four children, after an explosion during a gas delivery at a Mexico City maternity hospital. (Writes Reuters: “Many areas of Mexico City have no main gas supply, and rely on deliveries from gas trucks.”) More than 50 individuals have reportedly been injured, and a local official says the hospital’s nursery area has “practically collapsed.” Below, rescue workers at the scene.

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Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Jan. 29 2015 10:09 AM

Controversial St. Louis Police Rep Involved in Scuffle at Civilian Oversight Hearing

Jeff Roorda—the St. Louis police union representative who demanded an apology from the NFL after several players made protest gestures earlier this year (and who was fired from a police job in 2001 for dishonesty)—was involved in a large scuffle that ended a hearing on civilian-police relations in St. Louis on Wednesday night. The subject of the hearing was a proposed civilian oversight board for monitoring city police. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The meeting held by the aldermanic public safety committee, designed to seek public comment, lasted more than an hour with little event as residents ticked off the pros and cons of having a civilian board to review police conduct and procedures.
But the crowd became unsettled when police officers began testifying in opposition to the bill. At times, Alderman Terry Kennedy, who chairs the committee, struggled to keep order. The noise in the room spiked as police officers attempted to testify.

During this police testimony, Roorda—wearing an “I Am Darren Wilson” bracelet—stood to demand that Kennedy restore order. He then began moving toward the front of the room and bumped into a woman named Cachet Currie who later said she’d been trying to leave the meeting. Pushing and shoving broke out; it doesn't appear any serious violence or injuries occurred, but after 15 minutes of disorder the meeting was adjourned. You can see the beginning of the commotion about a minute into this KMOV report:

Kennedy told the Post-Dispatch he’s not sure when the oversight proposal will be brought to a vote of the Board of Aldermen.

Jan. 28 2015 11:17 PM

ISIS Announces New Deadline for Prisoner Release Demand

With the lives of two ISIS hostages hanging in the balance, the Islamist group set a new deadline on Wednesday for a potential prisoner swap in an increasingly complex negotiation where the ground appears to be constantly shifting. In a new video message from what is thought to be Japanese hostage Kenji Goto Jogo, ISIS revised the timeline on its demand that Jordan release convicted terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi. Here’s the text of the message from SITE Intelligence Group:

I'm Kenji Goto Jogo. This is a voice message I've been told to send to you. If Sajida al-Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Mu'adh al-Kasasibah will be killed immediately.

In response to an ISIS video distributed on Tuesday, Jordan agreed on Wednesday to a prisoner exchange saying it would release the Iraqi woman, who has been sentenced to death in connection to a 2005 bomb attack in Amman that killed 60 people, in exchange for the release of a Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who’s being held by the group. The new message, however, makes no mention of releasing the Jordanian pilot.

ISIS said it has killed its other Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa. The group had set a ransom for the Japanese captives at $200 million, but, as the BBC notes, videos released on Tuesday and Wednesday did not mention a ransom.

Jan. 28 2015 9:06 PM

Census Finds One in Five American Children Depends on Food Stamps to Eat

There was a sobering finding amidst the data released by the Census Bureau Wednesday showing a staggering 16 million children in the U.S.—or one in five kids under the age of 18—received food stamp assistance in 2014. Overall, more than 46.5 million Americans were on food stamps last year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The census numbers show that despite the gradual momentum of economic recovery, resulting in record highs in American wealth overall, large swaths of the country still have not recovered from the Great Recession. In 2014, more American kids relied on food stamps than at any time since the 2008 economic decline. Nine million children received food stamps in 2007, and 26 million Americans of all ages received assistance.

“The spike in food stamp spending has caught the attention of Congress, and House Republicans tried to cut the program by around $4 billion a year in 2013,” the Associated Press reports. “In an eventual compromise, Congress agreed to cuts of around $800 million a year … Since then, many states have found ways to get around the cuts. The [food stamp] program will still be under scrutiny in the new Republican Congress.”

Jan. 28 2015 7:45 PM

Castro Demands U.S. Return Guantánamo Military Base to Cuba

Relationships, even between countries, are about compromise. Cosmo taught me that. Despite the sudden warming of U.S.-Cuban relations, there were always going to be sticking points between the decades-long adversaries. On Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro issued a not totally unsurprising demand as a condition of normalizing relations with its neighbor: Cuba wants the U.S. to return the military base at Guantánamo Bay.

Castro also called for the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo during a speech at a summit held by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Costa Rica. "The re-establishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalizing bilateral relations," Castro said. "But this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don't give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo naval base." The U.S. established the Guantánamo military base in 1903 on land leased by the Cuban government. The current government, led successively by the Castro brothers, has been demanding the return of the land since it came to power during the 1959 revolution.

Since the Dec. 17 announcement by Obama and Castro that the two countries would work toward renewing diplomatic ties, Obama has loosened the trade embargo, removing restrictions on U.S. travel, remittances, and exports to Cuba. Castro, on Wednesday, also demanded the U.S. pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for the losses the country incurred because of the 52-year trade embargo.

Jan. 28 2015 6:21 PM

NFL Vets Who Played Football Before Age 12 Have More Cognitive Problems, Study Finds

A study of 42 former NFL players suffering from "cognitive problems" found that those who'd begun playing football before age 12 performed "significantly worse" on mental tests than those who hadn't started playing until they were older. The study was conducted by researchers at Boston University's School of Medicine.

While this study only covered former pro players, other research has shown that "children and adolescents are more vulnerable than adults to poor outcomes and prolonged recovery from concussions," the study says. "Preliminary work" by the same researchers, they report, also indicates that football players at all levels (not just NFL) who'd begun playing before age 12 "self-reported significantly worse executive function, depression, and apathy" than others.

Jan. 28 2015 6:08 PM

GOP Lawmakers Chafe at Heritage Foundation’s “Unachievable Standard” of Conservatism

The conservative Heritage Foundation is about to host a retreat for congressional Republicans at a spa in Virginia, but their relaxing escape from Washington could wind up being a little awkward. A recent meeting of the House’s Republican Study Committee brought a confrontation with the former senator who heads up Heritage over the foundation’s insistence on strict fidelity to its far-right values.

The Heritage Foundation’s political arm, Heritage Action, scores lawmakers’ votes to determine their alignment with the organization’s priorities—like reducing welfare spending, fighting financial and environmental regulation, and restricting access to abortion—using rigid standards that can trip up even their most loyal allies. According to Politico, members of the RSC complained on Tuesday to Heritage President Jim DeMint that the scorecard could be hobbling Republicans’ success by unfairly tarring legislators as too liberal.

Georgia Rep. Austin Scott questioned how the conservative Heritage Action scores legislation.
"I think Paul Ryan's ideas go a long way toward moving the country in the right direction, and are certainly conservative and consistent with most conservative fundamental beliefs," Scott said in an interview with POLITICO, describing his comments in the closed meeting. "If you score Paul Ryan at a 66, none of us can live up to your standards. If you set an unachievable standard, it hurts our goals."
Heritage Action actually scores Ryan as voting with the group 58 percent of the time.

The Republican Study Committee has recently come under fire from an ultraconservative faction of Republicans for deviating from its 40-year mission of keeping the GOP from moving toward the center, and news of RSC complaints to DeMint over Heritage standards could intensify that criticism.

Rep. Scott told Politico that the objections to Heritage’s scoring are based not on ideological disagreements but on a desire to make progress. “Coming from the farm, my granddad would say there are some people that want to prove a point and others who want to make a difference. I feel like Heritage sometimes is trying to prove a point while conservatives in the House are trying to make a difference.”

Jan. 28 2015 6:08 PM

The GOP Finds Something to Love About Loretta Lynch: She’s Not Eric Holder

Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch spent the first day of her confirmation hearings being quizzed by Republican senators on everything from President Obama’s immigration reforms to the NSA to police and race. But perhaps the only question that she really needed to ace was the one offered by Sen. John Cornyn. “Let me just stipulate, you’re not Eric Holder, are you?” asked the Texas Republican. “No, I’m not, sir,” Lynch responded with a smile.

Lynch’s confirmation proceedings are the first for an Obama nominee since Republicans took control of the Senate this year. To date, however, the GOP has largely held its fire when it comes to Lynch—a decision that has less do with her and more to do with the man she would replace atop the Justice Department. Congressional Republicans and Holder have repeatedly clashed during his six years in office. The GOP-controlled House went as far as to vote to hold him in contempt in 2012 over the DOJ’s refusal to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun-walking operation. Holder responded by treating some GOP lawmakers with what sounded an awfully lot like contempt in return.

Because Holder has made it clear that he’ll stay put until his successor is in place, Republicans appear willing to bet that the devil they know is worse than the one they don’t. Lynch entered the hearing on track for a relatively smooth confirmation process, and nothing that happened Wednesday appeared to change that. She’ll need the support of at least three GOP members of the Judiciary Committee for her nomination to reach the Senate floor. The most likely candidates are believed to be Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), although it wouldn’t be a shock if she ultimately ends up with a few GOP votes to spare.

Jan. 28 2015 5:07 PM

Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Reportedly Arrested by Taliban for Leading ISIS Faction

In a kind of nightmare terrorism Mad Lib, Gawker has picked up a story out of Afghanistan asserting that Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban soldier released from American custody at Guantánamo Bay in 2007, has been arrested by the Taliban for working on behalf of ISIS.

[Rauf] recently joined the IS, a jihadi group which controls large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, and has been leading hundreds of masked gunmen in northern districts of Helmand.
A Taliban commander in Helmand, wishing anonymity, told Pajhwok Afghan News they disarmed Rauf and his 45 gunmen and detained them on Wednesday in compliance with directives from the Taliban’s governor for Helmand, Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund.

Gawker has more on the context of Rauf’s arrest—ISIS, reportedly, is attempting on more than one front to undermine the Taliban in order to consolidate its position as the “future of Islamic governance.”

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