The world at a glance
An Afghan immigrant stabbed two American tourists at Amsterdam’s main train station last week in an apparent case of mistaken identit
y. The accused assailant, named only as Jawed S., 19, had traveled from Germany intending to attack Dutch people, because, he told police, the Netherlands allows insults to Islam, the Quran, and the Prophet Mohammed. He mentioned Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, who recently announced a competition to draw cartoons of Mohammed, forbidden in Islam. Wilders canceled the competition after death threats. The Americans, whom the U.S. Embassy did not name, had serious but not life-threatening injuries.
British authorities have identified two Russian intelligence officers they say were behind the March poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in southern England. Prosecutors charged Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov—both of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency—with conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, and use of the nerve agent Novichok. “This was not a rogue operation,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, who charged it was approved “at a senior level of the Russian state.” Russia doesn’t allow its citizens to be extradited, but the U.K. has issued a European arrest warrant for the two men. The poisoning also led to the death of Briton Dawn Sturgess, who came into contact with a discarded vial of Novichok in June.
Scientists investigating the headaches and brain injuries suffered by dozens of U.S. Embassy staff now believe that microwave radiation was to blame. Aimed properly, microwaves can resonate in the head, causing phantom sounds—like those heard by State Department employees in Havana in 2016 and in the Chinese city of Guangzhou earlier this year—as well as concussion-like brain trauma. Both the U.S. and the Russians have researched ways to weaponize radiation waves, and the National Security Agency said in 2014 that a “hostile country” had developed a microwave weapon “that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy.” Cuban government investigators dismissed the theory as “science fiction.”
History up in flames
Rio de Janeiro
Fire consumed the National Museum of Brazil this week, destroying more than 90 percent of its 20 million–item collection. The 200-year-old Rio museum held Latin America’s largest assemblage of historical and scientific artifacts, including finds from Egypt, Greco-Roman art, and “Luzia”—the 12,000-year-old skull of a Paleo-Indian woman whose remains were the earliest found in the Americas. A fresco from Pompeii that survived the eruption of Vesuvius was among the lost treasures. It’s unclear what caused the blaze, but protesters blamed underfunding of public services; the museum had just secured money for new fire-prevention measures. Firefighters had to divert water from a nearby lake to battle the flames, because the closest hydrants weren’t working.
Swimmer held as trafficker
Greek authorities have arrested three members of Emergency Response Center International, a charity that helps refugees make it safely across the Mediterranean, saying the group is “a criminal organization” that offers assistance to human traffickers. Police said 30 Greek and foreign members of the nonprofit are implicated in the case. Among the arrested is former refugee Sarah Mardini, a top Syrian swimmer who became a hero in 2015 when she and her Olympic swimmer sister, Yusra, jumped from their broken-down boat and pulled it to shore, saving 18 shipmates. Now a college student in Germany, Mardini, 23, was on leave to help translate for refugees on Lesbos. Mardini denies the charges, which her lawyer says are “criminalizing help given to refugees.”
Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced emergency austerity measures this week in a bid to shore up his country’s plunging currency. The peso has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar this year, and Argentina’s inflation rate is now running at more than 30 percent. Macri said he would impose a new tax on exports, slash public spending, and scrap 13 of the government’s 23 ministries. “What we have to face is a basic problem,” Macri said, “which is we cannot spend more than we have.” The new measures were announced just days after the Argentine central bank hiked interest rates to 60 percent from 45 percent. Argentina is seeking to speed up disbursements from a $50 billion bailout agreement negotiated with the International Monetary Fund this summer
No aid to Palestinians
The Trump administration has cut all U.S. funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides education and health care to 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East, calling it an “irredeemably flawed operation.” The U.S. gave more than $350 million to UNRWA in 2017. The administration blames the agency for encouraging Palestinians to insist on a “right of return” to homes inside Israel lost in the 1948–49 Arab-Israeli War, a demand that would render Jews a minority in Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Israeli legislators this week that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, had asked him if he’d support a peace plan that would see Palestinian territory folded into a confederacy with Jordan. Jordanians said the idea was “not open for discussion.”
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Eighty-seven elephant carcasses have been found near a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, it was revealed this week, their tusks removed in what appears to be the largest single instance of elephant poaching recorded. With an elephant population of 130,000—the largest in the world—Botswana had been hailed as a conservation success story. But in May the country disarmed its anti-poaching unit. “The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana,” said Mike Chase of the conservation group Elephants Without Borders. “It’s open season.” The number of African elephants has fallen by about 111,000 over the past decade, to 415,000. About 30,000 elephants are killed across the continent every year. The slaughter is being fueled by demand for ivory in Asia.
Investing in Africa
At a summit with African leaders in Beijing this week, China pledged $60 billion in financial support to African nations over the next three years. Chinese President Xi Jinping said the sum includes $15 billion in grants and interest-free loans, $20 billion in credit lines, and a $10 billion fund for development financing. Some economists say that China’s “Belt and Road” global infrastructure plan—which aims to link 65 countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa—is saddling African countries with too much debt, and that most infrastructure jobs go to Chinese, not African, workers. Beijing asserts that China is simply sharing development experience, with altruistic motives. “China does not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs,” Xi said, “and does not impose its own will on Africa.”
In a blow to press freedom, a Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act while reporting in 2017 on the killing of 10 ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are only “guilty of committing journalism,” said Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler, yet their sentences are just three years shorter than those given to the soldiers whose crime they revealed. Western governments have asked Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who is de facto civilian ruler of Myanmar, to pardon the reporters. Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for failing even to condemn, much less stop, the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign, which has sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.
Two gay Malaysian women found guilty of attempting to have sex were caned in a sharia law court this week in front of some 100 people—the first such punishment conducted in public. Sharia law enforcement officers in the conservative state of Terengganu said they caught the women—ages 22 and 32—in a parked car in April; they were sentenced to a fine and six lashes each. Malaysia has a two-track justice system, and the nearly two-thirds of its 31 million people who are Muslim are governed by Islamic courts in family, marriage, and personal issues. Homosexuality is illegal under both secular and Islamic laws, and in 2017, two gay men were lashed 83 times each for having sex. “This case shows a regression for human rights,” said Thilaga Sulathireh of the Malaysian rights group Justice for Sisters. “Not only for LGBT people, but all persons.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, shunned by most Western leaders because of his murderous crackdown on suspected drug dealers and users, got a red-carpet welcome in Israel this week despite protests by human rights activists. Duterte said his country would seek to buy Israeli weaponry, and he gave the Israeli firm Ratio Oil Exploration a contract to search for oil and gas in the Philippines. Duterte laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and called Hitler “insane,” though he’d once compared himself to the Nazi leader, saying, “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. There’s 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” In fact, Hitler killed 6 million Jews. ■