Nation & World News

U.K. Officials Instructed To Grant Ai Weiwei’s Original U.K. Visa Request

By Lucy Perkins on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 6:03 pm

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was originally granted only a 20-day visa to visit Britain, will now receive the six-month visa he applied for. A spokesperson for the U.K. Home Office explains that the head of the department, Theresa May, was not consulted over the staff’s decision to allow only a shorter stay.

“She has reviewed the case and has now instructed Home Office officials to issue a full six-month visa,” the spokesperson says. “We have written to Mr. Ai apologizing for the inconvenience caused.”

We wrote Thursday on The Two-Way that Ai had been restricted to the 20-day visa because the office says he didn’t list a criminal conviction on his application:

In a post on his Instagram account, Ai says he has never been charged with or convicted of a crime. But, he continues, the British immigration office cites a criminal conviction in China that is ‘a matter of public record,’ which Ai says refers to his ‘secret detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.’

As we reported, Ai was detained by authorities in 2011 as he was trying to fly to Hong Kong. Authorities took his passport, kept him in custody for 81 days and eventually fined him $2.4 million for tax evasion.”

Ai has yet to post anything on his social media accounts about the change in his visa’s status.

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Judge Says Virginia Can Refuse To Issue Confederate License Plates

By Scott Neuman on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Close on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that granted Texas the right to refuse to issue Confederate-themed license plates, a federal judge has effectively vacated a state injunction in Virginia that kept officials there from similarly blocking such plates.

Judge Jackson L. Kiser will issue a separate written order on whether the 1,700 Confederate license plates that have already been issued can be recalled by the state.

The Washington Post writes:

“At a U.S. District Court hearing in Danville, state Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s office argued that a 14-year-old injunction that keeps Virginia from prohibiting the use of the flag on license plates should be vacated because the Supreme Court found that government-issued items are not protected as free speech under the U.S. Constitution.

“‘Accordingly, it is now the law of the land that States may decide, as the Commonwealth of Virginia did in 1999, not to place the Confederate battle flag emblem on their specialty license plates,’ Herring’s office argued in a motion filed in June, after the Supreme Court ruling.”

As we wrote in June, in a 5-4 decision in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the high court ruled “that the license plate design constitutes government speech and therefore Texas is entitled to choose which messages it approves.”

Texas had rejected a proposed plate because it included the Confederate battle flag. The state argued that the symbol was offensive to a “significant portion” of the public, but the move was subsequently challenged in court. That U.S. Supreme Court decision reversed a lower court ruling that had gone against Texas.

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Alan Cheuse, Novelist And Longtime NPR Contributor, Dies At 75

By Colin Dwyer on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 6:03 pm

Alan Cheuse, the novelist, teacher and longtime literary commentator for NPR, has died at the age of 75. His daughter, Sonya, confirmed that he died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident in California two weeks ago.

“On behalf of the family, we are in deep grief at the loss of our beloved father, husband and grandfather,” Sonya Cheuse told NPR. “He was the brightest light in our family. He will always remain in our hearts. We thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support.”

Cheuse spent more than 25 years with NPR, contributing book reviews, profiles and commentary to All Things Considered, and lending his voice to online pieces, as well. During that time, he penned five novels of his own — the most recent of which, Prayers for the Living, was published this year.

As poet Robert Pinsky notes, Cheuse became a trusted voice for his peers much earlier than his work began with NPR in the 1980s. Pinsky met Cheuse when they were still in their teens, and the two studied together at Rutgers University, where Cheuse received his Ph.D. in 1974. He says that even while Cheuse was a student, tenured faculty would come to him for recommendations.

“He was the first, he was the first really impressive young writer I saw. We lived in a period when many great writers were alive. Alan was for me and many other people a guide to a very exciting world,” Pinsky says.

“Alan embodied the spirit of ambitious, far-ranging writing that characterized modernist writing at the time,” he adds.

It’s a sentiment echoed by others, too.

Mitchell Kaplan, the co-founder of Miami Book Fair International, says that Cheuse took him under his wing when Kaplan was a young bookseller.

“He became a friend and a mentor, and someone I admired so greatly. So willing to promote other writers. So involved and appreciative of the work that anyone was doing,” Kaplan says. “He always took so much pride in what others were doing.”

It’s a pride he expressed in teaching, as well. At the time of his death, Cheuse taught creative writing at George Mason University in Virginia, and for years, he led fiction workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in California.

While Cheuse was in the hospital, his students at GMU showed their appreciation of his teaching by opening the Alan Cheuse Literary Review, asking for submissions from all the GMU students and faculty “whose writing has been brightened by Alan’s sharp wit and wisdom to contribute to a special project.”

Within hours, they had received so many requests from writers and teachers outside the school that they had to expand their submission guidelines.

Sonya Cheuse, director of publicity for the publisher Ecco, says her father passed his love of literature down to her and to the rest of his family.

“My dad is the reason I love reading,” she says. “This is the family business.”

Cheuse is survived by his wife, Kris O’Shee; daughters Sonya and Emma; and son, Josh.

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Federal Court Places A Stay On Order Compelling NCAA To Pay Athletes

By Bill Chappell on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 3:04 pm

One day before a district court ruling was to go into effect that would force the NCAA to allow colleges to pay student-athletes $5,000 per year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has placed a stay on that order.

The ruling comes nearly a year after a district court judge ruled that the “NCAA violated antitrust laws when it said college athletes couldn’t be compensated for the use of their names and likenesses,” as we reported last August. The NCAA appealed the decision.

The NCAA requested the stay earlier this month, saying it would suffer irreparable harm if the district order were allowed to take effect on Aug. 1 — the same day that colleges and universities begin sending offer letters to athletes for the following school year.

Friday’s ruling is the latest in a legal dispute between college athletes and the National Collegiate Athletic Association that began in earnest in 2009, when a group of athletes led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed suit.

The three-judge panel wrote:

“Without expressing a view as to either party’s likelihood of success on the merits, the court grants a stay of the district court’s injunction in this case, dated August 8, 2014, to preserve the status quo until this court’s mandate has issued.”

In its motion for a stay in the case, the NCAA said that it is in the public’s interest to preserve rules “that have long protected student-athletes from commercial pressures, and to ensure that the nation’s colleges and universities need not unnecessarily divert their resources and attention away from their educational mission.”

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Dylann Roof Pleads Not Guilty To Federal Hate Crime Charges

By Scott Neuman on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Updated at 4 p.m. ET

A judge entered pleas of not guilty to 33 federal hate crime counts against Dylann Roof, the white suspect accused of gunning down nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, S.C., last month.

Roof’s attorney said his client wanted to plead guilty, but that he advised against the move until it was known whether prosecutors would seek the death penalty for the June 18 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The Associated Press reports:

“During a brief arraignment in federal court, defense attorney David Bruck said that he couldn’t advise his client, Dylann Roof, to enter a guilty plea without knowing the government’s intentions.

“U.S. Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant then entered a not guilty plea for Roof, 21, who faces federal charges including hate crimes, weapons charges and obstructing the practice of religion. Appearing in court in a gray striped prison jumpsuit, his hands in shackles, Roof answered yes several times in response to the judge’s questions but otherwise didn’t speak.”

As the Two-Way reported last week, the federal indictment “also says Roof created a website, thelastrhodesian, where he posted a racist manuscript and photographs of him “wearing a jacket with flags of two former apartheid African nations, displaying his Glock .45-caliber pistol, and holding a confederate flag.”

In addition, Roof faces nine counts of murder as well as attempted murder and weapons charges.

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Marine Version Of F-35 Deemed ‘Combat Ready’

By Scott Neuman on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Updated at 2 p.m. ET

Eighteen years and nearly $400 billion since engineers begin outlining the initial concept, a small squadron of F-35B Lightning IIs has finally been declared ready to fight.

Ten of the stealthy fighters, which have experienced numerous cost overruns and delays over the years, will begin flying with the U.S. Marine Corps’ 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (VMFA-121) based in Yuma, Ariz., after the planes are officially deemed “combat ready” in an announcement today.

“The U.S. Marine Corps decision to make the F-35B ready for combat is the first significant event for the program,” Air Force Lt. Gen Chris Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, said in a statement. “The weapons system is now in the warfighters’ hands and can be called upon to do its mission.”

It would come just days after Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James was quoted as saying that the airplane has “taken us too long [and] has cost us way more money than we ever imagined possible.” James also said there were still challenges left to overcome: “I would sum it up in a word — software.”

The so-called Joint Strike Fighter was developed for multinational and multi-platform deployment. The U.S. has borne the lion’s share of the development costs, with help from the U.K., Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Turkey.

But building the aircraft in multiple variants — one for the Air Force (F-35A “conventional takeoff and landing”), another for the Marines (F-35B “short takeoff/vertical landing”) and a third for the Navy (F-35C “carrier variant”) has helped drive up development costs. Some estimates have placed the cost of the program much higher than the official $391 billion.

Military.com writes: “The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition program … to purchase 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. The Corps plans to begin operational flights this year — albeit with a less lethal version of the aircraft — followed by the Air Force in 2016 and the Navy in 2019.”

The program has been heavily criticized over the years for its overall expense and cost overruns. Besides the total program cost, the price tag per plane is huge, averaging an estimated $135 million, with the Navy and Marine versions considerably more expensive than the one the Air Force will use.

Military.com quotes Marine Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the deputy commandant for aviation, as saying the aircraft has performed well in tests of its armed reconnaissance, interdiction, opposed strike and close air support roles.

“The exchange rates and the kill rates that we had against the adversary aircraft in a multi-mission profile was very, very impressive,” he said. “They did very, very well — great accuracy with the hits.”

The first actual deployment for the F-35Bs in the VMFA-121 squadron is expected to be Iwakuni, Japan, in 2017.

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Arson Attack That Killed Toddler In West Bank Is Called Terrorism

By Eyder Peralta on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 2:03 pm

An arson attack in the West Bank that killed an 18-month-old boy was being condemned widely on Friday, but the Palestinian Liberation Organization is putting the blame on the Israeli government.

The attack happened in the early morning hours of Friday when perpetrators firebombed a house in the village of Duma. According to the BBC, the perpetrators left behind some graffiti in Hebrew. On one wall, the Star of David was drawn right next to the word “revenge.”

According to The New York Times, an 18-month-old toddler was burned to death and his 4-year-old brother was critically injured.

The BBC reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the attack “reprehensible and horrific.”

“This is an act of terrorism in every respect. The State of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of the perpetrators,” Netanyahu said.

The BBC adds:

“However the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said it held the Israeli government ‘fully responsible for the brutal assassination’ of the child, Ali Saad Dawabsha.

” ‘This is a direct consequence of decades of impunity given by the Israeli government to settler terrorism,’ it said.”

Reuters reports that this:

“… was the worst attack by Israeli assailants since a Palestinian teenager was burned to death in Jerusalem a year ago. That followed the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

“The Israeli military boosted forces in the area to search for the suspects, described by a spokesman as ‘two masked terrorists,’ and prevent any escalation in violence. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas called for revenge.”

Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said that the United States condemned “last night’s vicious terrorist attack.”

He continued: “We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s order to Israel’s security forces to use all means at their disposal to apprehend the murderers for what he called an act of terrorism and bring them to justice. We urge all sides to maintain calm and avoid escalating tensions in the wake of this tragic incident.”

Meanwhile, the family and several hundred people joined in a funeral procession for the boy. In life, Reuters reports, Ali Dawabsheh was a beautiful, smiling, chubby-faced boy.

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New Ebola Vaccine Has ‘100 Percent’ Effectiveness In Early Results

By Bill Chappell on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 2:03 pm

In a development that could change the way the deadly Ebola disease is fought, researchers have announced promising results of a new vaccine’s trial in Guinea, one of several countries affected by a historic outbreak in West Africa.

“The estimated vaccine efficacy was 100 percent,” a team of researchers say.

The trial was called Ebola ça Suffit — French for “Ebola that’s enough.” Funded by the World Health Organization and other groups, it started in April and ended on July 20, relying on participants who consented to be part of the trial. The more than 20 researchers who took part published their findings in The Lancet medical journal on Friday.

“The current data basically tells us that the vaccine works to protect people against Ebola,” says Dr. Bertrand Draguez, medical director of Médecins Sans Frontières, which took part in the research along with WHO and authorities in Guinea.

Draguez and other experts are heartened by the new results — but they also warn that as testing expands, the effectiveness rate of the vaccine will likely fall below 100 percent. The trial used the “ring vaccination” method, in which all suspected contacts receive treatment. No placebos were administered.

“Even if the sample size is quite small and more research and analysis is needed,” Draguez says, “the enormity of the public health emergency should lead us to continue using this vaccine right now to protect those who might get exposed to the disease: contacts of infected patients and front-line workers.”

The trial vaccine, formally called rVSV-ZEBOV but more commonly known as VSV-EBOV, was supplied by the pharmaceutical firm Merck Sharp & Dohme. The drug was initially developed by Canada’s Public Health Agency and was tested as early as 2011.

To conduct the Guinea trial, researchers used newly confirmed Ebola cases to identify clusters of people with whom the patients had contact. On a random basis, those clusters then received the vaccine either immediately or after a 21-day delay.

“In the immediate vaccination group, there were no cases of Ebola virus disease with symptom onset at least 10 days after randomization,” the researchers say, “whereas in the delayed vaccination group there were 16 cases of Ebola virus disease from seven clusters, showing a vaccine efficacy of 100 percent.”

Researchers say that for both groups — those who got the vaccine immediately and those who received it after a delay — no new Ebola cases were diagnosed starting at six days after vaccination.

The randomization phase of the trial was stopped this week, WHO says, “to allow for all people at risk to receive the vaccine immediately.” It will also now include younger people than the adults involved in the trial.

The first person to receive the trial vaccine in Guinea was Mohamed Soumah, 27. He tells WHO:

“It wasn’t easy. People in the village said that the injection was to kill me. I was afraid. I was the first one to be injected, the very first, here in my village on 23 March 2015. I’ve been monitored for 3 months and I’ve had no problems. The last follow-up, 84 days after the vaccination, was all clear.”

The vaccine is administered via a shot to the upper arm. The researchers who ran the trial say their results suggest a single injection is highly effective, and that protection against Ebola can be established quickly. They’re also still analyzing possible adverse reactions to the drug.

The interim findings on the Guinea trial are the latest to bolster the belief that VSV-EBOV could be the drug Ebola-fighters have been waiting for. Earlier this year, it showed positive results in clinical trials at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A Walter Reed release about that study explained how the drug is derived:

“VSV-EBOV is based in part on a genetically engineered version of vesicular stomatitis virus, which primarily affects rodents, cattle, swine and horses. Human VSV infections are rare and mild. In the VSV-EBOV investigational vaccine, the gene for the outer protein of VSV replaces the same gene segment of the Zaire Ebola virus species.”

Researchers in the Guinea trial say the number of new clusters of potential patients is falling, because the rate of new diagnoses in the country has dropped. The next immediate step, they say, is to continue the trial and vaccinate more people. Last Friday, Guinea’s government and medical ethics groups approved that plan.

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In Report, Justice Accuses St. Louis County Family Court Of Racial Bias

By Eyder Peralta on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 11:03 am

In a scathing 60-page report, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division says the St. Louis County Family Court has engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the constitutional rights of children caught up in the juvenile justice system.

An investigation, which the department started in 2013, found, among other things, that the family court fails to provide children with adequate counsel, sets up systems that could coerce children into admitting guilt, and fails to provide probable cause for children facing delinquency charges.

Some of the most startling findings came when the Justice Department analyzed the statistics of nearly 33,000 cases. In short, they found that even when taking other variables into account, black children faced harsher treatment “because of their race.”

Here is the relevant portion of the report:

Usually, after the Justice Department issues a report of this kind, it will go into negotiation with the local authority it is investigating. Many times, the two sides reach a consent decree, which is an agreement designed to try to address the issues raised in the report.

Justice has launched dozens of these investigations since Congress passed a law in 1994 that allowed the department to sue local agencies over violations of constitutional or federal law. In March, the Justice Department issued a similarly scathing report about the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department.

“Missouri was at the forefront of juvenile corrections reform when it closed its large juvenile institutions and moved to a smaller, treatment-focused system and we are hopeful that Missouri will rise to this challenge to, once again, be a leader in juvenile justice reform,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a written statement.

“This investigation is another step toward our goal of ensuring that children in the juvenile justice system receive their constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process and equal protection under the law.”

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Tonight, Look For A Rare (But Not Quite Blue) Moon

By Scott Neuman on July 31st, 2015 | Last updated: July 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Updated at 11 a.m. ET

Get ready for a very rare event tonight — a blue moon.

But don’t expect to see a new hue. A blue moon, at least according to the modern definition of the term, has nothing to do with color. It simply means a second full moon in the same calendar month.

As NASA explains in the video above: “Most blue moons appear pale gray and white, just like the moon you’ve seen on any other night.”

And that doesn’t happen very often (the last time was in August 2012, and the next time will be January 2018), so “once in a blue moon” is a phrase still worthy of a rare occurrence.

This month, there was a full moon on July 1, and tonight, the last day of July, there’s another. (Technically, the full moon occurred at 6:43 a.m. ET on Friday, about 20 minutes after it set for the U.S. East Coast, but it can still be seen again when the moon rises at 8:23 p.m. ET for Washington, D.C., residents.)

But the meaning of a “blue moon” has changed over time. It originally meant, according to folklore, something more ludicrous than rare. According to a 2012 Sky & Telescope magazine article: “[The] very earliest uses of the term were remarkably like saying the Moon is made of green cheese. Both were obvious absurdities, about which there could be no doubt. ‘He would argue the Moon was blue’ was taken by the average person of the 16th century as we take ‘He’d argue that black is white.’ ”

But a secondary definition — the one about two full moons in a month — popped up (as an error, it turned out) in a 1946 issue of Sky & Telescope. Years later, in 1980, the mistake was amplified by the public radio program StarDate, and later, by the board game Trivial Pursuit. It stuck.

Philip Hiscock, a folklorist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and Texas astronomer Donald W. Olson “helped the magazine sort all this out and admit the mistake back in 1999. The error led to the widely accepted definition of blue moon today: the second full moon in a given month. A blue moon occurs roughly once every 2.7 years,” according to Space.com.

Even so, “on rare occasions, the moon can turn [the color] blue,” according to the NASA video. It says: “A truly blue moon usually requires a volcanic eruption. Back in 1883, for example, people saw blue moons almost every night after the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded with a force of a 100-megaton nuclear bomb.”

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