Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Aug. 30 2014 11:17 AM

U.N.: Syria Crisis Is “Biggest Humanitarian Emergency of Our Era”

Three million people have been forced out of Syria amid the country’s civil war, one million of whom have escaped in the past year, says the United Nations. Even though the Syria crisis “has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” the international community “is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. The astounding figure means that one in eight Syrians have crossed the border to flee, details the Associated Press.  

As shocking as the number may be, the refugee crisis is only one part of a larger humanitarian emergency. Some 6.5 million Syrians are estimated to have been displaced inside the country, reports Reuters. That means “almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives,” according to the U.N. refugee agency. Although donors have already forked over $4.1 billion to help people engulfed in the crisis, at least an additional $2 billion is needed by the end of the year, notes CNN. The latest figures come a week after the United Nations said there had been 191,369 documented killings in Syria from March 2011 until April of this year.

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Aug. 30 2014 10:32 AM

Federal Judge Nixes Key Parts of Texas Abortion Law

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel has saved 19 licensed abortion clinics across Texas from having to shut their doors. In a decision Friday, the federal judge ruled the state can’t enforce a key part of an abortion law that required clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, including a minimum number of rooms and having facilities for complicated surgeries. The requirement “burdens Texas women in a way incompatible with the principles of personal freedom and privacy protected by the United States Constitution for the 40 years since Roe v. Wade,” Yeakel wrote, according to the Texas Tribune.

There are only eight clinics in Texas that are also licenses as ambulatory surgical centers and they’re all in the large metropolitan areas of Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas-Fort Worth, details the Austin American-Statesman. Advocacy groups had argued that under the new law almost 1 million women of reproductive age would be at least 150 miles from an abortion clinic, notes Reuters. Although the state argued that the new rule would improve care, the state’s hospital association argued it was unnecessary because any woman who is having complications from an abortion can always go to an emergency room.

Judge Yeakel also struck down another part of the law that required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges in a hospital within a 30-mile radius of the clinics where they work. Several clinics have reportedly shut down because of that requirement. With the stringent demands on abortion clinics, Texas had reached a “tipping point” in the number of restrictions it placed on women considering other measures that had been imposed by the state, including a 24-hour waiting period and requiring all women to have a sonogram before an abortion.

The strict regulations were inside a large anti-abortion bill that was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2013 and is part of a trend by anti-abortion advocates to increase regulations on clinics. “More than two dozen states have imposed surgery-center-type standards of widely varying stringency,” reports the New York Times. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is seen as a strong contender to succeed Perry, immediately vowed to appeal the ruling. A PDF copy of the ruling is available here.

Aug. 29 2014 1:00 PM

Iowa Politician Pleads Guilty to Illegally Taking Payments From Ron Paul Campaign

A former Iowa state senator has pleaded guilty to two criminal charges and admitted taking $73,000 in illegally routed payments from Ron Paul's presidential campaign in exchange for a 2012 Iowa caucus endorsement. The senator, Kent Sorenson, had previously endorsed Michele Bachmann. From the Des Moines Register:

According to a statement of facts accompanying Sorenson's plea agreement, he secretly negotiated with the Paul campaign over a period of months to join the campaign and received $73,000.
The payments included several monthly payments, ranging in size from $8,000 to $33,000, routed through a film production company and a second company before being received by Sorenson. Those circuitous routes circumvented reporting requirements of the Federal Election Commission, ensuring the payments were kept hidden from the public.

It's been reported that Sorenson also took possibly illegal payments from the Bachmann campaign.

Prosecutions of figures involved in the Ron Paul campaign could be forthcoming, the Washington Post reports. The chairman of Ron Paul's 2012 campaign, Jesse Benton, was the campaign manager for Rand Paul's 2010 Senate campaign and is currently the campaign manager for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. Benton has not been accused of any crime, but—as mentioned in this detailed look at the connections between Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and the Kent Sorenson case by Slate's David Weigel—he appears to have contiunued to work through at least 2013 with a company associated with the deputy Ron Paul campaign manager who is reported to have written Kent Sorenson a $25,000 check as part of the endorsement scheme.

Aug. 29 2014 10:45 AM

Ousted New England Supermarket President Arthur T. Demoulas Makes Triumphant Return

Last month a regional grocery chain in New England—Market Basket—was struck by employee strikes, work slowdowns, and customer protests after popular President Arthur T. Demoulas was fired in a power struggle with his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Arthur T. is well-liked by employees because of his considerate personality and history of generosity with wages and benefits, but has been involved in a long-running family dispute over control of the business in which he's been connected to some shady dealings. For now, though, things seem to have gone Arthur T.'s way again—he's signed a deal to buy Market Basket from his cousin, regaining control of the company. From the Boston Globe:

Market Basket’s shareholders announced the deal at 11:15 p.m. after several days of suspenseful negotiations. Arthur T. Demoulas and his sisters will buy the shares of their cousin Arthur S. Demoulas and other relatives on his side of the family, who collectively own 50.5 percent of the company.

The degree to which workers love Arthur T. is really quite astounding given our present age of income inequality and, like, the history of capitalism:

“I’m elated. I’m elated. That is awesome,” said Andy Lien, a director of the chain’s perishable warehouse in Andover who led workers who walked off the job in July.
“It’s just fantastic,” said Ann Rogers, 55, a protesting employee who worked in the company’s accounts payable department. “I’ve been working with this company for 28 years, and this has been hanging over the company’s head the whole time. This fight was absolutely worth it.”

Arthur T. and the rest of Market Basket now begin the process of restoring the chain's operations, which have been significantly interrupted by the weeks of labor strife and uncertainty.

Aug. 29 2014 9:42 AM

“I'm Not Your Brother,” Says Officer Tasering Black Minnesota Man in Front of His Children

A video and audio recording taken in January that's surfaced in recent days appears to capture an unarmed, unaggressive St. Paul, Minnesota, man being immobilized with a stun gun in front of his children.

The man, Christopher Lollie, was reported to police because he was allegedly sitting in a restricted area of a building that also includes a public space. Lollie is shown walking away from the area in question while telling a police officer that he hadn't seen a sign marking it as nonpublic; he says he is heading to pick up his children from school and refuses to give the officer identification. A second officer approaches and quickly escalates the situation. From the Twin Cities Daily Planet:

“I’ve got to go get my kids,” the man tells the second officer, pulling his arm away. “Please don’t touch me.”
“You’re going to go to jail then,” the second officer says.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” the man replies.
At this point, both officers grab the man.
“Come on brother,” the man says, “This is assault.”
“I’m not your brother,” the second officer replies. “Put your hands behind your back otherwise it’s going to get ugly.”

The video cuts out as the officers use a Taser on Lollie; what seems to be children crying can be heard in the background. According to Minnesota's Fox 9, Lollie was charged with "trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of the legal process," but charges were dropped. A statement from St. Paul police Chief Tom Smith says officers became violent with Lollie because they "believed he might either run or fight with them."

Aug. 28 2014 8:48 PM

WHO Warns Ebola Infections Could Reach 20,000

The World Health Organization issued a dire warning on the potential toll of the Ebola outbreak on Thursday, saying the virus could infect as many as 20,000 people in the next nine months. The bleak forecast comes as the organization continues to try to mobilize the global community to combat the outbreak in West Africa. The WHO released documents on Thursday indicating the spread of the virus continues to accelerate—with more than 40 percent of the reported cases occurring in the last three weeks—and that “the actual number of cases may be two to four times higher than that currently reported,” the New York Times reports. “According to the latest figures released by the health organization on Thursday, the total cases had risen to 3,069, with 1,552 deaths, in four West African countries: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria,”

Here’s more from the WHO report via the Wall Street Journal:

The Geneva-based WHO said in its report, which it dubbed a road map for responding to Ebola, strengthening laboratory facilities and adding staff with more expertise in the disease were necessary to containing the outbreak. Public health infrastructure needed to be improved to cope with future threat… The WHO said getting health experts to regions affected by the Ebola virus outbreak was an urgent priority. That has been made difficult because international airlines, including Air France, British Airways and Emirates Airline, have suspended flights to some of the four affected countries. Air traffic into the affected areas was likely to be addressed in the next two weeks, the WHO said. By the end of September, a United Nations-led plan will be launched to improve air access to the area, it added. The WHO program will likely cost around $490 million and require contributions from national governments, some U.N. and non-governmental agencies, as well as humanitarian organizations, it said.

Aug. 28 2014 7:36 PM

Canada Trolls Russian Geography on Twitter, Russia Snarks Back

Amidst a serious potential escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with evidence emerging that Russian troops are engaged in combat in the country, the good folks at the Canadian NATO delegation decided to go on the snark offensive, firing off the above tweet. While amusing, one might reasonably wonder if there are not better ways to spend a country’s strategic resources than photoshopping a map to tweak an adversary. One might also have thought that Russia, involved in a pretty serious conflict on its border, might have either: a) been too busy to notice, or b) taken the high road. But, alas, even the high road has Wi-Fi these days.

The Russian NATO delegation, while not disputing Canada’s founding of the state of “Not Russia,” did take issue with its depiction of Crimea as still a part of “Not Russia.” In response, apparently relying on the international norm of “annexers keepers,” the Russians fired back.

There were zero reports of the two delegations resorting to wedgies to settle the dispute.

Aug. 28 2014 6:04 PM

SWAT Team Arrest of Online Gamer Caught Live on Webcam After Hoax 9-1-1 Call

Jordan Mathewson was playing the video game Counter-Strike online Wednesday when he noticed something wasn’t quite right. “Uh oh, this isn’t good,” Mathewson said on the live online broadcast of his gaming session. “They’re clearing rooms, what in the world? I think we’re getting swatted.” Mathewson, sitting in a video game company in Littleton, Colorado was, in fact, being “swatted.”

Within moments, a heavily armed SWAT team charged in the room and arrested the gamer after a call to police said there was an active shooter in the building. "The caller claimed to have shot two co-workers, held others hostage, and threatened to shoot them. He stated that if the officers entered he would shoot them as well," the Littleton Police Department said in a statement. "There were no victims or any evidence that a shooting had taken place.” The 9-1-1 call appears to be hoax. But the danger to Mathewson was real as police in Littleton, understandably, take active shooter situations seriously after nearby shooting tragedies at Columbine and Aurora.

The practice of swatting, as Slate’s Justin Peters wrote last year, is when “you contact the police, falsely report a horrible crime or a hostage standoff, and convince them to send a SWAT team to your unsuspecting victim’s door.” The high stakes prank, which also happens to be illegal, first blipped on the pop culture radar with celebrities getting swatted. Now, the BBC reports, some in the gaming community have adopted it as a way to sabotage opponents.

Aug. 28 2014 5:05 PM

Five Authors of Ebola Paper Published Today Have Died of Ebola

Five doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers who are co-credited as authors of a paper about Ebola published today in Science have already died of the disease, the publication says. All five worked at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, and all were "experienced members of the hospital's Lassa fever team." (Lassa fever is "a hemorrhagic illness with many symptoms similar to Ebola.")

One of the victims was Sheik Umar Khan, the doctor supervising Sierra Leone's Ebola response, whose death last month was widely reported.

Three of the victims were infected while caring for another colleague of theirs who contracted the virus while pregnant, Science says. One of those victims, Mbalu Fonnie, was the nursing supervisor of the hospital's Lassa fever ward and had survived a Lassa fever infection. The article does not say whether the colleague that Fonnie and others were caring for survived.

Aug. 28 2014 4:31 PM

NFL Announces Strict Penalties for Domestic Violence Infractions

The NFL faced heavy criticism last month for suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice—who was videotaped dragging his wife out of an Atlantic City elevator after allegedly knocking her unconscious—only two games, a penalty smaller than some of the suspensions the league gives to players who smoke marijuana. At the time Rice was suspended, the league's rules did not specificy a set penalty for domestic violence incidents, and he was disciplined under the broader "personal conduct" policy. Today, league commissioner Roger Goodell has instituted rules that mandate a six-game suspension for domestic violence offenses, with second-time offenders banned from the league (with the possibility of reinstatement after one year). ESPN has posted a letter Goodell sent team owners:

At times...we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.

NFL players can be punished by the league for off-field incidents even if their behavior does not lead to a criminal conviction.

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