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News

    Serbia’s president and other officials sent mixed signals on Wednesday whether they will go ahead with the plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade after thousands protested the move and violently clashed with the police in the capital. Chaos erupted as thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building after President Aleksandar Vucic announced on Tuesday that a weekend curfew will be reintroduced in the Balkan country after health officials reported the highest single-day death toll of 13 amid 299 new COVID-19 cases. Opponents blame the autocratic Serbian leader of contributing to the spike in deaths and new cases after he lifted the previous lockdown measures. They say he did that to cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections held on June 21. He has denied those claims. On Wednesday, Vucic appeared to backtrack on his new lockdown plans that were to take effect during the coming weekend. “You know, seven days ago I thought to impose once again the lockdown of the entire country because of that new wave of the COVID-19 crisis,” Vucic told a video conference with his populist allies, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Premier Janez Jansa. “But you know, if we would have done that, we would have no chances of surviving economically and we need to live with this, and we need to take all precautionary measures but we need to keep on working, to keep on working very hard just to protect our business community and our workers,” he said. Serbia's chief epidemiologist, Predrag Kon, told N1 television that the announced curfew is still under discussion and might not be imposed after all. Kon said the protest on Tuesday evening “showed how people feel” about the possibility of total lockdown in Belgrade during the weekend. He said the virus' spread has to be curbed and lockdown is the easiest way. But he suggested the measures might be less strict than Vucic announced. Serbian police said 23 people have been detained and scores of police officers and demonstrators injured in the clashes that lasted for more than six hours. Police chief Vladimir Rebic told state-run RTS television that authorities are working to identify more people who took part in the rioting in central Belgrade that left 43 police officers and 17 demonstrators injured. Rebic said police showed “maximum restraint” and reacted only when it was absolutely necessary. Some rights groups in Belgrade denounced what they described as police brutality. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights urged citizens to come forward and offered legal aid. Vucic will deliver a TV address to the nation later Wednesday as more protests by opposition groups are planned. ___ Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
  • Pope Francis denounced the unimaginable “hell” of Libya’s migrant detention camps as he celebrated a Mass on Wednesday in honor of would-be asylum seekers who risk their lives for a better future. Wednesday marked the seventh anniversary of Francis’ visit to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to meet with migrants who had recently arrived aboard smugglers’ boats from Libya. The July 8, 2013, trip was Francis’ first pastoral visit outside Rome after his election, and it was in Lampedusa where Francis first uttered his now-frequent appeal for an end to the “globalization of indifference” that greets migrants globally. Francis repeated that phrase in his homily Wednesday in the chapel of the Vatican hotel where he lives. Whereas last year’s anniversary was marked with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, attended by asylum-seekers and those who care for them, this year’s commemoration was restricted to the staff of the Vatican’s migrants office, due to coronavirus restrictions. Francis recalled that he heard stories of suffering from the migrants he met on Lampedusa in 2013, but only realized when he got back to the Vatican that his translator had only relayed a fraction of what the migrants had recounted. “He gave me the distilled version,” Francis said of the translator, explaining that this is often the case when the world hears blandly of war and suffering in Libya. “You cannot imagine the hell that is being lived there,” he said, referring to Libyan detention camps as “lagers.” Human rights groups have documented cases of rape, torture and other widespread abuses in Libyan migrant centers, where would-be asylum seekers are returned after they are rescued by the Libyan coast guard and returned to shore. Italy and the European Union, seeking to stem the flow of migrants to Europe, have invested millions of euros in boosting the ability of the Libyan coast guard to patrol its coasts. But rights groups complain this has only made them complicit in the abuses that then occur in the camps.
  • Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about today: 1. WHERE TEXAS VIRUS SURGE IS HITTING HARD A small hospital in north Houston may soon fully turn over its 117-bed facility to coronavirus patients, AP finds. 2. ‘GUNSLINGER MEDICINE’ NOT SOUND SCIENCE Scientific shortcuts have slowed understanding of COVID-19 and delayed the ability to find out which drugs help, hurt or have no effect at all. 3. ‘PERFECT STORM OF DISTRESS IN AMERICA’ Experts point to high unemployment, the viral pandemic, stay-at-home orders and rising anger over police brutality as possible reasons for a surge in violent crime in America. 4. WHAT’S NEXT AS MONUMENTS, STATUES FALL Activists and towns are left wondering what to do with empty spaces that once honored historic figures tied to Confederate generals and Spanish conquistadors. 5. MARY KAY LETOURNEAU DEAD AT 58 The former suburban Seattle teacher became tabloid fodder when she pleaded guilty in 1997 to raping her former sixth-grade student, a boy she later married.
  • A two-year audit of Facebook’s civil rights record found “serious setbacks” that have marred the social network’s progress on matters such as hate speech, misinformation and bias. Facebook hired the audit’s leader, former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues. Its 100-page report released Wednesday outlines a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at the company on everything from bias in Facebook's algorithms to its content moderation, advertising practices and treatment of voter suppression. The audit recommends that Facebook build a “civil rights infrastructure” into every aspect of the company, as well as a “stronger interpretation” of existing voter suppression policies and more concrete action on algorithmic bias. Those suggestions are not binding, and there is no formal system in place to hold Facebook accountable for any of the audit's findings. “While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the audit report states. Those include Facebook's decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking, even when President Donald Trump posted false information about voting by mail. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has cited a commitment to free speech as a reason for allowing such posts to remain on the platform, even though the company has rules in place against voter suppression it could have used to take down — or at least add warning labels to — Trump's posts. Last month, Facebook announced it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians — going forward. But it is not clear if Trump's previous controversial posts would have gotten the alert. The problem, critics have long said, is not so much about Facebook's rules as how it enforces them. “When you elevate free expression as your highest value, other values take a back seat,” Murphy told The Associated Press. The politician exemption, she said, “elevates the speech of people who are already powerful and disadvantages people who are not.” More than 900 companies have joined an advertising boycott of Facebook to protest its handling of hate speech and misinformation. Civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders Tuesday expressed skepticism that recommendations from the audit would ever be implemented, noting that past suggestions in previous reports had gone overlooked. “What we get is recommendations that they end up not implementing,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color for Change, one of several civil rights nonprofits leading an organized boycott of Facebook advertising. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, said in a Facebook newsroom post that the company has a long way to go, but is making progress. “This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company — but it is the beginning of the journey, not the end,” she wrote. “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.” __ Associated Press Writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this story.
  • China on Wednesday defended the World Health Organization and lashed out at the U.S. decision to withdraw from the U.N. body. Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the move was “another demonstration of the U.S. pursuing unilateralism, withdrawing from groups and breaking contracts.” WHO is “the most authoritative and professional international institution in the field of global public health security,” Zhao said at a daily briefing. The U.S. departure from the organization “undermines the international anti-epidemic efforts, and in particular has a serious negative impact on developing countries in urgent need of international support,” Zhao said. The Trump administration formally notified the U.N. on Monday of its withdrawal from WHO, although the pullout won’t take effect until next year. That means it could be reversed by a new administration or if circumstances change. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said he would reverse the decision on his first day in office if elected. President Donald Trump has harshly criticized WHO over its response to the coronavirus pandemic and accused it of bowing to Chinese influence. Trump said in a White House announcement that Chinese officials “ignored” their reporting obligations to WHO and pressured the organization to mislead the public about an outbreak that has now killed more than 130,000 Americans. The move was immediately assailed by health officials and critics of the administration, including numerous Democrats who said it would cost the U.S. influence in the global arena while undermining an important institution that is leading vaccine development efforts and drug trials to address the coronavirus. The withdrawal notice was sent to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday and will take effect in a year, on July 6, 2021. The U.S. is WHO’s largest donor and provides it with more than $450 million per year, but owes about $200 million in current and past dues. Those financial obligations must be met before a U.S. withdrawal can be finalized.
  • At least 239 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested in more than a week of unrest in Ethiopia that poses the biggest challenge yet to its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister. In the Oromia region, the toll includes 215 civilians along with nine police officers and five militia members, regional police commissioner Mustafa Kedir told the ruling party-affiliated Walta TV on Wednesday. Officials earlier said 10 people were killed in the capital, Addis Ababa, eight of them civilians, amid outrage after a popular singer was shot dead last Monday. Hachalu Hundessa had been a rallying voice in anti-government protests that led to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking power in 2018. Abiy swiftly introduced political reforms that also opened the way for long-held ethnic and other grievances in Africa's second most populous country. The military was deployed during the outrage that followed Hachalu's death. In remarks last week while wearing a military uniform, Abiy said dissidents he recently extended an offer of peace had “taken up arms” in revolt against the government. He hinted there could be links between this unrest and the killing of the army chief last year as well as the grenade thrown at one of his own rallies in 2018. The 3,500 arrests have included that of a well-known Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed, and more than 30 supporters. It is not clear what charges they might face. The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held the country’s top post until they helped bring Abiy to power. Local reports have said that in some places ethnic Oromo have attacked ethnic Amhara, and in Shashamane town some people were going home to home checking identity cards and targeting Amhara residents. Businesses have now begun opening slowly in Oromia after the violence in which several hundred homes in Ethiopia were burned or damaged. But Ethiopia’s internet service remains cut, making it difficult for rights monitor and others to track the scores of killings.
  • A memorial mass was held Wednesday in Germany for the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, the older brother of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Following the Pontifical Requiem at the High Cathedral of St Peter’s in Regensburg, Ratzinger, who died on July 1 at the age of 96, was to be buried at the Bavarian city's Lower Catholic Cemetery. Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, who led the service, told mourners that Benedict was following the mass online. “As we reliably know, the pope emeritus is connected with us via livestream,” Voderholzer said. The 93-year-old emeritus pope made a four-day visit to Regensburg to be with his ailing brother just over a week before Ratzinger’s death. Toward the end of the funeral mass, a cleric read out a message from Benedict. Benedict thanked all those who had taken care of his brother in his last weeks and said his “heart was touched” by the many letters he received from believers around the globe after his death. Talking about his visit to say goodbye to his ailing brother shortly before he died, Benedict said that, “I felt the hour had come to visit him one more time ... I am deeply grateful that the Lord gave me this sign.” Georg Ratzinger headed the famous Regensburger Domspatzen choir, which traces its history back to the 10th century. The choir toured the world under his leadership, performing for Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. But after his retirement from the post, Ratzinger apologized for using corporal punishment to discipline boys amid a wider investigation into sexual and physical abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Georg Ratzinger remained extremely close to his brother throughout his career, expressing dismay when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005 that the stress would affect his health and that they would no longer spend so much time together. During the service, a portrait of Ratzinger was placed next to the altar and the coffin, which was adorned with yellow and white carnations. Incense burned in a bowl to the right of his picture as Voderholzer led prayers and men clad in black and white gowns sang songs in German and Latin.
  • Johnny Depp denied hitting ex-wife Amber Heard in a jealous rage, as he was cross-examined Wednesday by a lawyer for British tabloid The Sun in a London courtroom. The newspaper is defending a libel claim after calling the Hollywood star a “wife beater.” Depp is suing The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that said he had physically abused Heard. The case opened Tuesday at the High Court in London, with Depp sitting in the witness box and denying Heard’s allegations that he assaulted her on multiple occasions. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star said Heard’s “sick” claims were “totally untrue.” He called his ex-wife sociopathic, narcissistic and emotionally dishonest. Depp, 57, and Heard, 34, met on the set of the 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in February 2015. They divorced in 2017, and now bitterly accuse one another of abuse. While Heard isn’t on trial, the case is a showdown between the former spouses, who accuse each other of being controlling, violent and deceitful during their tempestuous marriage. The Sun’s defense relies on Heard’s allegations of 14 incidents of violence by Depp between 2013 and 2016, in locations including Los Angeles, Australia, Japan, the Bahamas and a chartered jet. He denies them all and says Heard, an actress and model, attacked him with items including a drink can and a cigarette, and severed his finger by throwing a vodka bottle at him. Cross-examining Depp, The Sun’s lawyer, Sasha Wass, recounted an allegation of abuse that Heard says took place at her home in March 2013. She said Depp became enraged at a painting by Heard's former partner, artist Tasya Van Ree, that hung in Heard's bedroom. Depp acknowledged that he “could be jealous” but denied Heard's claim that he took the painting off the wall, tried to set it on fire and slapped Heard when she intervened. “I did not hit Ms. Heard and furthermore I have never hit Ms. Heard,' said Depp, who wore a gray suit, blue shirt and patterned tie for his court appearance. He also denied hitting Heard after she laughed at a tattoo he had that read “Wino Forever.” He said he'd had it altered from “Winona Forever” after he split up with actress Winona Ryder years earlier. 'I don’t recall any argument about any of my tattoos,' Depp said. Depp rejected every allegation of violence put to him by Wass, dismissing the claims as “not correct” and “patently untrue.” He denied the lawyer's suggestion that his memory had been impaired by alcohol and drug abuse. Wass has tried to paint Depp as a volatile personality with a longstanding drug habit and an anger-management problem. Depp has acknowledged taking both prescription and illegal substances since childhood, but denied Heard’s clam he became a “monster” when he drank and took drugs. “I was angry, but that doesn’t mean I have an anger problem,” Depp said Tuesday. “I also express myself by laughing. I don’t have a humor problem.” Depp and Wass also clashed over whether Heard had tried to curb his drinking and drug use. Heard claims she tried to support Depp to become sober and never took cocaine during their relationship. “There were many times in our relationship, early on, where not only did she chop the cocaine with a razor blade into lines, she would then take the cocaine on her finger and rub it on her gums,' Depp said. Heard is attending court and is expected to give evidence later in the trial, which is scheduled to last three weeks.
  • Hundreds of women and their babies suffered “avoidable harm' because Britain's healthcare system ignored serious concerns raised about some medical treatments, a scathing review into three National Health Service scandals found Wednesday. Patients were dismissed and overlooked when they complained about three medical interventions: pelvic mesh, which has been linked to crippling, life-changing complications including chronic pain; the anti-epilepsy drug sodium valproate, which has been linked to physical malformations in many children when taken by their mothers during pregnancy; and hormone pregnancy tests such as Primodos, thought to be associated with birth defects and miscarriages. The review chaired by Julia Cumberlege, a former health minister, said the healthcare system had a “glacial” and “defensive” response to concerns over the treatments. The report outlined “heart-wrenching″ stories of how the treatments led to “acute suffering, families fractured, children harmed and much else' in hundreds of families. Patients then fought for decades to have their concerns heard. Cumberlege stressed that it was “truly shocking” that no one knows the true number of people affected. The report said that hormonal pregnancy tests, which were provided in Britain from the 1950s, should have been banned from 1967 — but they were not fully withdrawn in Britain until 1978. “Thousands of women and unborn children were exposed to this risk,” she said. “This should not have happened. The system failed.” “The issue here is not one of a single or a few rogue medical practitioners, or differences in regional practice,' the report said. 'It is system-wide.” The two-year study heard mainly from women whose lives were catastrophically affected. It also took evidence from the NHS, private healthcare providers, regulators and professional bodies, manufacturers, and policymakers. Cumberlege acknowledged that at a time when the NHS' response to the COVID-19 outbreak had led to praise, her report would offer uncomfortable reading. But she said the system just wasn't good enough at spotting trends that gave rise to safety concerns. The report offered nine recommendations, including a fulsome government apology and the need for separate plans to meet the cost of providing additional care and support to those who have experienced avoidable harm.
  • Sri Lanka and Maldives have become the first two countries in the World Health Organization's South-East Asia region to eliminate both measles and rubella ahead of a 2023 target, the U.N. health agency announced Wednesday. “This success is encouraging and demonstrates the importance of joint efforts” in combating diseases as the world grapples with the coronavirus, WHO South-East Asia regional director Poonam Khetrapal Singh said in a statement. A country is considered to have eliminated measles and rubella when there is no evidence of endemic transmission of the viruses for more than three years and there is a well- performing surveillance system. Maldives reported its last endemic case of measles in 2009 and rubella in October 2015, while Sri Lanka reported its last endemic case of measles in May 2016 and rubella in March 2017. WHO praised the efforts of countries in the region to continue vaccinating children while battling the coronavirus pandemic. It said all of the countries in recent years have introduced two doses of measles vaccine and at least one dose of rubella vaccine in their routine immunization programs. First-dose coverage of measles vaccine is now 88% and second-dose coverage 76% in the region, WHO said. Since 2017, nearly 500 million more children in the region have been vaccinated for measles and rubella, it said. Last September, the 11 countries in WHO's South-East Asia region set 2023 as a target for the elimination of measles and rubella. The countries in the WHO region are Bangladesh, Bhutan, East Timor, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. WHO said Bhutan, East Timor and North Korea have succeeded in eliminating measles.