Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

July 24 2014 12:40 PM

Story About Mandatory Female Genital Mutilation in Iraq May Not Be True

A number of news outlets reported this morning that ISIS jihadists had ordered the mandatory genital mutilation, aka "female circumcision" or FGM, of approximately 4 million women between the ages of 11 and 46 in Mosul, Iraq. One of the first reports seems to have come from the BBC, whose source was a United Nations official named Jacqueline Badcock:*

The Isis edict could affect nearly four million women and girls in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the UN warns.
Ms Badcock, the UN's resident and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said the practice "is something very new for Iraq... and does need to be addressed".
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Almost immediately, however, other reporters with sources in Mosul began writing that their contacts were not aware of ISIS having made any FGM edict.

The BBC now looks to be backing off its report.

Other recent (and unchalleged) reports from Mosul indicate that the city's small Christian population has been forced to flee the area due to ISIS persecution.

Correction, July 24, 2014: This post originally misspelled Jacqueline Badcock's last name.

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July 24 2014 10:49 AM

The South Korean Ferry Story Has Gotten Very, Very Weird

The case of the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster has faded from headlines of late, but not for a lack of strange, unsettling developments. To summarize, here's what we knew about the case before this week:

  • The Sewol sank in April, killing a presumed 304 people, though not every presumed victim's body has been recovered.
  • Investigators came to believe that the operators of the ferry contributed to the disaster by overloading the ship and failing to properly train its crew.
  • The question of who actually owned the ferry was itself a complicated one, and prosecutors eventually targeted Yoo Byung-eun, a 73-year-old billionaire and a founder of the controversial Evangelical Baptist Church.
  • In the 1980s, 32 members of an offshoot of the Evangelical Baptist Church committed mass suicide, and the investigation ultimately led to Yoo's conviction for fraud. He spent four years in prison.
  • Rather than turn himself in over the Sewol case, Yoo became a fugitive. When the police raided an Evangelical Baptist Church compound to look for information on his whereabouts, literally thousands of officers were involved.
  • Yoo's church owns the website God.com.
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Imagine if Bernard Madoff founded the Branch Davidians and became a fugitive like O.J. Simpson after perpetrating the Challenger disaster, and you have something like an American analogy for what was going on in South Korea.

And that's where we were until news broke Monday that police had found Yoo's body. The emerging details have only made the situation stranger.

  • Yoo's body was actually found on June 12, decomposing, but was not immediately identified. The individual who discovered it thought he had found a deceased homeless person.
  • Yoo had reportedly been hiding behind the wall of a nearby cabin when police searched it on May 25.
  • The body was found in an apricot orchard (or, per some reports, a plum orchard).
  • Beside the body, according to reports: several bottles of alcohol, a shark-liver-oil product, and an extra shirt.
  • And a book called Greater Love Has No One Than This, apparently a reference to a Gospel verse about sacrificing one's life, that Yoo wrote in prison. (Or maybe it was called Dreamlike Love.)
  • And a magnifying glass.

So one of the richest men in South Korea—the proprietor of God.com—was found, after a shocking disaster and a massive manhunt, lying dead in an orchard near a book about love and a magnifying glass. (Or not—some, including the Evangelical Baptist Church, per the Economist, don't believe the body was Yoo's.)

What began as a tragedy has, while becoming no less tragic, turned into something out of a surreal, dread-permeated work of science fiction.

July 24 2014 10:16 AM

Third Passenger Airplane to Crash Since Last Week Goes Down in Western Africa

An Air Algérie flight en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers with a reported 116 people aboard has crashed near the border of Niger and Mali, Reuters reports. It's the third large-scale passenger air disaster in just over a week, following the downing of MH17 in the Ukraine last Thursday and Wednesday's crash in Taiwan, in which at least 48 individuals died. From Reuters:

There were few clear indications of what might of happened to the aircraft, or whether there were casualties, but Burkino Faso Transport Minister Jean Bertin Ouedrago said it asked to change route at 0138 GMT (9.38 p.m. EDT) because of a storm in the area.
"I can confirm that it has crashed," the Algerian official told Reuters, declining to be identified or give any details about what had happened to the aircraft on its way north.
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Weather also appears to have been a factor in the Taiwan crash, which occurred in what CNN describes as "heavy rain."

In yet another air tragedy, the body of 17-year-old Indiana pilot named Haris Suleman, who was attempting to fly around the world with his father, was found Wednesday in the Pacific Ocean after a crash between American Samoa and Honolulu. Suleman's father Babar has not been found.

July 23 2014 9:12 PM

Federal Judge Rules Colorado Gay Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

Colorado became the latest state to have a federal judge strike down its state ban on same sex marriage on Wednesday. The court ruled that disallowing gay marriage was unconstitutional, but as with previous rulings elsewhere, imposed a temporary stay on the implementation of the decision until a potential appeal can be heard. “The Wednesday ruling marks the 25th district court ruling against a gay marriage ban since last year’s Supreme Court rulings,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Colorado's Supreme Court last week ordered the Denver County clerk to stop issuing licenses to same-sex couples pending the resolution of an appeal by the state's attorney general,” Reuters reports. “Emboldened by a landmark U.S. appeals court ruling in June that found in favor of gay marriage in neighboring Utah that was itself put on hold, a handful of county clerks in Colorado had begun issuing marriage licenses despite a state ban on gay nuptials.”

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The federal civil suit was filed by six gay couples on July 1.

July 23 2014 7:55 PM

Arizona Man Gasps and Snorts During Lethal Injection Execution That Took Nearly Two Hours

After a high-profile legal battle over the drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail, the execution of convicted murder, Joseph Wood, finally went ahead in Arizona on Wednesday. The execution was carried out, but how it took place will surely add fuel to the growing controversy over lethal injections in America.

According to the AP, Wood “was put to death in an apparently flawed procedure that took too long to conclude. An hour into the execution, his lawyers [filed] an emergency [Supreme Court] appeal, saying he'd been ‘gasping’ and ‘snorting’ for an hour… Word that Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal came about a half hour after Wood's death.” The AP reporter on the scene witnessed Wood gasp more than 600 times before he died from a procedure that experts say should have taken 10 minutes.

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Here’s more from NBC News:

The execution of Joseph Wood — which Arizona carried out with a lethal-injection it had never before tried — is certain to fan the debate over how U.S. states carry out the death penalty. Midway through the execution, defense attorneys asked a judge to stop the execution of Joseph Wood and order prison officials to try to resuscitate him. But before the court acted, he was pronounced dead. "The execution commenced at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) - Florence. He was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m," a statement Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. The statement did not say what problems the execution team had encountered, but Wood's lawyers painted a macabre picture.

Wood was given the death penalty for the double murder of his girlfriend and her father in 1989. On Tuesday a federal appeals court sided with Wood’s lawyers who in seeking to delay the execution, the Associated Press reports, “used a new legal tactic in which defense attorneys claim their clients' First Amendment rights are being violated by the government's refusal to reveal details about lethal injection drugs.” The legal team was seeking information on the drug combination used by the state of Arizona. The Supreme Court, however, overruled the stay, allowing the execution to be carried out.

Wood’s apparently mishandled execution comes on the heels of the gruesome botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett in April.

*This post has been updated.

*Correction, July 23, 2014: This post originally stated Clayton Lockett was executed in Ohio. The execution took place in Oklahoma.

July 23 2014 6:48 PM

With Latest Recall, GM Makes a Solid Run at Recalling Every Car It’s Ever Made

Welcome to your monthly General Motors recall update. General Motors, you’ll recall, is an American automaker. It sells people cars and then—as it was again shown on Wednesday—it takes those cars back from their owners. GM’s latest effort to look as much like Meineke as automotively possible came as the company announced another six safety recalls covering nearly 718,000 vehicles in the U.S. “The problems ranged from a broken screw that could cause front seats to move up and down freely to problems with some welds to problems with the power steering,” CNN reports.

GM says the recall was prompted by two crashes and several injuries, but there have been no deaths stemming from the defects. It’s a testament to GM’s dwindling reputation as a maker of cars that such recalls have become ho-hum. After all, the company has already recalled 29 million cars worldwide this year, with 25.7 million of those occurring in the U.S.—including millions with faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths and 54 crashes. That’s more than all of the recalled vehicles by every car company in the world combined last year. And it’s not just the jalopies, GM’s even making new cars that don’t really work. “Most of GM's recalls this year have been for older models, but many of the recalls announced Wednesday are for current-model vehicles, including about 57,000 Chevrolet Impala sedans from the 2014 model year for the loss of power steering,” Reuters reports. “The latest recalls hit GM's best-selling vehicles, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, from the 2014-2015 model years.”

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In a release announcing the recall, GM tried to put a positive spin on the whole thing. “These recalls signify how we’ve enhanced our approach to safety,” said Jeff Boyer, vice president, Global Vehicle Safety. “We are bringing greater rigor and discipline to our analysis and decision making. If we identify an issue – large or small – that might affect the safety of our customers, we will act decisively.” Apparently, they don’t test drive the cars before they sell them.

You can check out the full list of recalled cars and trucks here.

July 23 2014 5:09 PM

Ukrainian Rebel Says Rebels Had Anti-Aircraft Missile System

Reuters has a scoop this afternoon that supports the most widely held theory about the downing of flight MH17 (namely, that rebels using a Russian-supplied missile system fired at the plane by mistake, believing that it belonged to the Ukrainian military):

A powerful Ukrainian rebel leader has confirmed that pro-Russian separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the type Washington says was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and it could have originated in Russia.
In an interview with Reuters, Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, acknowledged for the first time since the airliner was brought down in eastern Ukraine on Thursday that the rebels did possess the BUK missile system and said it could have been sent back subsequently to remove proof of its presence.
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Reuters' story is datelined in the city of Donetsk, and the implication of Khodakovsky's statements seems to be that rebels in Donetsk province received the BUK system (which is apparently also called the SA-11 system) from other rebels in Luhansk province before the crash occurred, though he doesn't quite say so directly or definitively. (Read the whole piece to see what we mean.)

Kodakovsky believes the Ukrainian government may be complicit in the attack on MH17 because it launched airstrikes in a region where it had reason to believe anti-aircraft missiles were present and thus potentially provoked the counterstrike that downed the plane.

July 23 2014 2:56 PM

Blue Angels Scandal Involves Genitalia Painting So Large It Could Be Seen on Google Maps

The Navy's investigation of sexual harassment allegations in the Blue Angels daredevil air unit has been made public. The report finds that former Angels commanding officer Gregory McWherter "witnessed, accepted, and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic, and hostile." The details are bizarre and support the conclusion that the Blue Angels' environment was hostile toward both women (who have piloted Navy planes for decades, though there has never been a female Blue Angel) and the group of men who don't want to look at pornography or discuss their colleagues' personal sex interests constantly at work (a group that includes many men):

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And:

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Regarding a group communications tool:

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Pumpkins? Yes:

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And finally, a very large painting:

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Well. How about that? The Navy has instigated several reforms related to the report's findings, though McWherter's ultimate punishment appears to be TBD.

July 23 2014 11:39 AM

Rockets Found Stashed in a United Nations Gaza School for Second Time

Last week the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that it had found rockets in a (currently unused) UNRWA school in Gaza. On Tuesday the possibility that this was a propaganda move by jihadists—to use the school as a shield and/or bait Israelis into attacking it—seems to have gotten stronger, as UNRWA found rockets in a school again. From the group's statement:

As soon as the rockets were discovered, UNRWA staff were withdrawn from the premises, and so we are unable to confirm the precise number of rockets. The school is situated between two other UNRWA schools that currently each accommodate 1,500 internally displaced persons.
UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.
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UNRWA says it gave the first group of rockets it discovered to representives of Palestine's unity government, of which it says Hamas—which has been launching rockets toward Israel for weeks—is no longer a member. (It's not entirely clear that this is the case.) What will be done with the rockets discovered Tuesday is unknown.

July 23 2014 10:29 AM

Top Ebola Doctor in Sierra Leone Contracts Ebola

Sheik Umar Khan, the doctor leading anti-Ebola efforts in Sierra Leone—one of three Western African countries that have been hit by an outbreak—has contracted the virus himself, Reuters reports:

Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist credited with treating more than 100 Ebola victims, has been transferred to a treatment ward run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, according to the statement released late on Tuesday by the president's office.
Health minister Miatta Kargbo called Khan a national hero and said she would "do anything and everything in my power to ensure he survives".
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"I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life," Khan said in an interview before he developed symptoms of infection. Three nurses at the facility where he worked have died in the last week.

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