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Trial of accused Christchurch mosque shooter may be delayed
By NICK PERRY | Thu, August 15, 2019 12:02 EDT
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The trial of the man accused of killing 51 people at two New Zealand mosques could be delayed by several weeks to avoid clashing with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The trial had been scheduled to begin on May 3 in the city of Christchurch, where the Muslim worshippers were killed five months ago during Friday prayers. But prosecutors said during a hearing Thursday they were working with court officials to see if they could fulfil the wishes of survivors and victims’ families by delaying the trial until after Ramadan ends in late May, Radio New Zealand reported.
Also during the hearing, lawyers for accused gunman Brenton Tarrant asked if the venue for the trial could be changed to Auckland, where Tarrant is being held at a maximum security prison, RNZ reported. Judge Cameron Mander plans to hear arguments for the venue change during the next hearing on Oct. 3.
Mander had earlier issued a written note saying that Tarrant could skip Thursday’s hearing because his lawyers didn’t require him to be there and he hadn’t sought to attend in person or by video. The 28-year-old Australian white supremacist has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder.
On Wednesday, prison officials admitted making a mistake by allowing Tarrant to send a six-page letter from his jail cell to a supporter. The letter was then posted on the 4chan website, which has become notorious as a place for white supremacists to post their views.
Corrections Department Chief Executive Christine Stevenson apologized for the distress the letter may have caused to victims of the March 15 attacks and said Tarrant had been stopped from sending or receiving any more letters until the department had processes in place to ensure the safety of the public.
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis told RNZ that Tarrant had sent seven letters since he’d been in jail and had written two more letters that prison staff had withheld. Davis said Tarrant sent two of the letters to his mother but didn’t know who had received the other five letters.
The online posting of the letter came at a sensitive time, with other alleged killers from El Paso, Texas, to Norway citing Tarrant as an inspiration.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has vowed never to utter Tarrant’s name in order to deny him the publicity she says he craves, making Tarrant’s letter even more of an embarrassment for the government.
“I think every New Zealander would have an expectation that this individual should not be able to share his hateful message from behind bars,” she told media on the island nation of Tuvalu, where she is traveling to attend a meeting of Pacific leaders.
Tarrant’s lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday on why they wanted to change the trial venue.
University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis, who is not involved in the case, said there were precedents in New Zealand for changing venue when it could be successfully argued that a jury pool in a town where an alleged crime took place was so tainted it couldn’t be relied upon to deliver a fair verdict.
But Geddis said that, although he didn’t know the specific arguments for changing venue in the Tarrant case, he would be surprised if the application was successful. He said the Christchurch shootings were notorious enough that everybody in New Zealand knew about them, and a change in venue would also seriously inconvenience the dozens of survivors and family members who continue to live in Christchurch.
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Flooded Mississippi a threat as hurricane season heats up
By JEFF MARTIN and JANET McCONNAUGHEY 02:52 EDT
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The river that drains much of the flood-soaked United States is still running higher than normal, menacing New Orleans in multiple ways just as the hurricane season intensifies.
For months now, a massive volume of water has been pushing against the levees keeping a city mostly below sea level from being inundated. The Mississippi River ran past New Orleans at more than 11 feet (3.4 meters) above sea level for a record 292 days, dropping below that height only Monday.
“The big threat is water getting through or underneath,” said Nicholas Pinter, an expert on river dynamics and flood risks who’s studied levee breaches across the nation. “The longer the duration, the greater the threat.”
Locals walked up levees from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to see the river for themselves as Tropical Storm Barry briefly menaced Louisiana last month, but the real damage runs underneath, experts say: All that rushing floodwater can scour levees along their foundations, causing damage in places that can’t easily be seen.
“That ultimately could undermine the levee as well and cause a breach or a failure,” said Cassandra Rutherford, assistant professor of geotechnical engineering at Iowa State University.
The federal agency that maintains the levees is aware of the risks. But Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the New Orleans office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps is confident that South Louisiana river levees are in great condition, with improvements made since 2011.
“If there’s a silver lining going into hurricane season with the river this high for this long, we’re entering the hurricane season having done 200 inspections of the levee since February,” Boyett said.
Inspectors were looking for parked barges, stuck debris or other potential trouble, such as tire ruts or damage from feral hogs on grassy surfaces. They also looked for water seeping through, and for sand boils — spots where water tunneling below a levee seems to bubble out of the ground.
Concrete mats armor underwater areas likely to be eaten away by the river’s current, Boyett said. Sand boils get ringed with sandbags until the water pressure on both sides equalizes, stopping the flow. And because some permanent repairs can’t be made during high water, dangerous seepage gets stopgap coverage: About 63,000 large sandbags have been used since March on one 300-foot-long (91.5-meter-long) seepage area upriver of Baton Rouge, he said.
Even so, experts who study flowing water say there’s a risk the river could rise above the tops of some levees in the New Orleans area, if a hurricane pushes enough storm surge up the swollen river. The city’s levees held the river back in the great flood of 1927 and haven’t been topped since then, Boyett said.
A Category 4 hurricane striking the Louisiana coastline can produce a 20-foot (6.1-meter) storm surge , the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. However, that surge’s size at New Orleans, more than 100 winding river miles up from the coast, would be reduced by the Big Muddy’s push seaward.
The levees range in height from 20 to 25 feet (6 to 7.5 meters). While river levels are finally falling, the National Weather Service projects the Mississippi will remain above average at New Orleans as hurricane season heats up.
“We really have a heightened concern this year,” said Scott Hagen, of Louisiana State University’s Center for Coastal Resiliency.
For most of the past three decades, the Mississippi has run about 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) high in mid-August at New Orleans’ Carrollton gauge. The last time it was this high was 11.4 feet (3.5 meters) in August 2015, a year when no significant tropical weather reached Louisiana’s coast. It was 12.2 feet (3.7 meters) in 1993, another year Louisiana’s coast escaped harm.
When Katrina formed as a tropical storm in the Bahamas on Aug. 24, 2005, the river stage in New Orleans was just 2.44 feet (0.74 meters) above sea level. It rose to 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) the day before Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
Katrina knocked out an automatic station that would have measured peak surge at the river’s mouth, but an analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency indicates the surge reached nearly 28 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi. Surge pushed the Mississippi River up to 11.6 feet (3.5 meters) at New Orleans — not a threatening height with the river low. But surge from the brackish lakes to the city’s north and east reached 19 feet (5.8 meters), overtopping or breaching those levees and flooding 80% of the city with water as much as 20 feet (6.1 meters) deep in places.
“I would assume major problems on the river if we had a high river with a Katrina event,” said Jeffrey Graschel, with the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.
The vast majority of the $14.6 billion spent on flood controls as a result of Katrina went not to the river levees, but to shore up and block areas that failed.
The possibility of a punishing storm surge meeting a swollen Mississippi in New Orleans is a different threat, one that could become more common as the planet warms, spawning longer-lasting floods and earlier hurricanes.
Barry was the first hurricane to menace when the river was as high as it was in July, Boyett said.
In 1929, the year construction started on the spillway that caps the river’s height at New Orleans, the Mississippi topped at 19.99 feet (6.1 meters) in June, Boyett said. But that year saw only five Atlantic tropical systems, with two hurricanes in the Gulf, National Hurricane Center data show — and both stayed away from Louisiana. NOAA forecasters now expect 10 to 17 named storms this year, including five to nine hurricanes.
Opening spillways upriver from New Orleans can’t fix this, because they were designed to keep water flowing at a manageable rate, not to quickly drop river levels, which could cause mudslides when levees don’t dry out as fast as the water falls, Boyett said.
The changing climate means this problem could become an annual threat.
“Flooding is never a one-time thing. We’re just waiting for the next one,” said Pinter, an associate director of the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “Given model predictions for climate change and rising sea levels and suggestions that hurricanes are maybe getting more intense, it’s something we have to keep an eye on.”
Martin reported from Atlanta.
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LA Opera to investigate Placido Domingo over accusations
By JOCELYN GECKER | 01:26 EDT
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Two music companies canceled appearances by Placido Domingo and the Los Angeles Opera said Tuesday it would launch an investigation in response to an Associated Press story in which numerous women accused the opera legend of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior spanning decades.
Domingo has been general director of the LA Opera since 2003 and previously served as the company’s artistic director, jobs that gave him the power to cast roles and — his accusers say — make, or break, careers.
Some of the women told the AP that Domingo used his power at the LA company and elsewhere to try to pressure them into sexual relationships, with several saying that he dangled jobs and then sometimes punished them professionally if they refused his advances.
On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera announced they would cancel upcoming performances featuring the star, regarded as one of the greatest opera singers of all time.
New York’s Metropolitan Opera said it would await the results of LA Opera’s investigation “before making any final decisions about Mr. Domingo’s future at the Met,” where he is scheduled to appear next month.
The 78-year-old Domingo is one of the industry’s most powerful figures and more than three dozen people in the opera world told the AP that his behavior has long been an open secret.
The accusers who spoke to the AP — all but one of whom requested anonymity — said they had feared speaking out previously would kill their careers due to his immense standing.
Domingo issued a statement to the AP calling the allegations “deeply troubling and, as presented inaccurate,” adding “I believed that all of my interactions and relationships were always welcomed and consensual.”
The LA Opera said it would hire outside counsel to investigate the “concerning allegations” against Domingo.
“Placido Domingo has been a dynamic creative force in the life of LA opera and the artistic culture of Los Angeles for more than three decades,” the company said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we are committed to doing everything we can to foster a professional and collaborative environment where all our employees and artists feel equally comfortable, valued and respected.”
Three women Quote: d in the story detailed encounters that they said occurred while working with Domingo at LA Opera, including one woman who told the AP that he stuck his hand down her skirt after urging her to come sing an aria for him at his apartment.
In canceling its invitation for Domingo to sing at its Sept. 18 opening gala, the Philadelphia Orchestra issued a statement saying: “We are committed to providing a safe, supportive, respectful, and appropriate environment for the orchestra and staff, for collaborating artists and composers, and for our audiences and communities.”
The San Francisco Opera said it would scrub a sold-out Oct. 6 concert featuring Domingo, which had been to mark his 50th anniversary with the company. It was promoted as a “special one performance-only event” with “one of the most influential singing actors in the history of opera” and was one of several gala events this year to celebrate his legendary career.
The Met held a black-tie dinner in April for Domingo, where seats started at $2,500. He is scheduled to play the lead of “Macbeth” in three Met shows in September and October.
“We take accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of power with extreme seriousness,” the opera house said in a statement, noting that “Mr. Domingo has never been in a position to influence casting decisions for anyone other than himself” at the Met.
At the Salzburg Festival in Austria, where Domingo is scheduled to appear Aug. 31 — his next scheduled performance — festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler said organizers agreed he should appear as planned.
“I have known Placido Domingo for more than 25 years,” Rabl-Stadler said in a statement. “In addition to his artistic competence, I was impressed from the very beginning by his appreciative treatment of all festival employees.”
“I would find it factually wrong and morally irresponsible to make irreversible judgments at this point,” she said.
Domingo served as artistic director for the Washington Opera from 1996-2003 and as the company’s general director from 2003 to 2011, during which time its name was changed to Washington National Opera. In 2011, the company merged with the Kennedy Center.
In a joint statement to AP, the institutions said the allegations against Domingo predated the merger.
“The Kennedy Center did not receive any documented complaints about Mr. Domingo’s behavior prior to WNO’s affiliation with the Kennedy Center, and we have not received any since then,” the statement said, adding that the company has “zero tolerance policies with regard to harassment, discrimination or abuse of any kind, and we take allegations of this nature very seriously.”
Retired mezzo-soprano Patricia Wulf, the sole accuser to allow her name to be used, told the AP that Domingo behaved inappropriately with her when she worked at the Washington Opera.
Even after she repeatedly rebuffed his advances, she said, his persistence continued and he would often knock on her dressing room door, causing her to fear emerging if he was in the hallway.
Wulf recalled the compassion of a male colleague who offered to stand up for her if she wanted to report him. “They’re not going to fire him — they’ll fire me,” she remembered telling him.
Too fearful to complain about Domingo at the time, Wulf said she spoke out now to end the culture of silence about abuse in the opera world.
“I’m stepping forward because I hope that it can help other women come forward, or be strong enough to say no,” she said.
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Pakistani PM reiterates support to Kashmiris on Indian side
By ROSHAN MUGHAL | 09:27 EDT
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s prime minister assured Kashmiri people living in the Indian-administered part of the divided region that he supports them in their struggle for self-determination.
In a statement Wednesday, Imran Khan condemned New Delhi’s decision on Aug. 5 to downgrade Kashmir’s status, as he began celebrations marking Pakistan’s independence day.
Khan celebrated the day in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir to express solidarity with Kashmiris on the Indian-controlled side. In a speech in its Legislative Assembly he warned India against any attack on Pakistan-administered Kashmir to divert attention from human rights violations in the Indian-controlled portion of the Himalayan region.
He said his country has credible intelligence that India could launch an attack and that Pakistan is “fully prepared to respond.”
Pakistan has strongly condemned India’s recent downgrading of Kashmir’s status from a state with some autonomy to two territories.
India has imposed an unprecedented security lockdown to try to prevent any violent reaction in Kashmir to its downgraded status.
Khan told the lawmakers that he will step up diplomatic efforts to highlight the issue of Kashmir and Indian actions there.
India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 when British colonialists left the subcontinent. The next year, they fought the first of two wars over control of Kashmir. It ended with the region divided between them, though both claim all of it.
Protests and clashes have occurred daily in the Indian-controlled portion, thought the curfew and communications blackout have meant the reaction is largely subdued.
Pakistan has called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, saying the move by India’s Hindu nationalist-led government threatens international peace and could lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Poland holds the council presidency this month and Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said members would discuss the letter.
Pakistan’s president, celebrating Pakistan’s independence in Islamabad, condemned India’s downgrading of Kashmir’s status as a violation of international law and said Pakistan “will not leave Kashmiri people alone.”
India celebrates its independence on Thursday and was finalizing preparations for the festivities in New Delhi and in Indian-administered Kashmir on the 10th day of the near-total security lockdown in the Himalayan region. The lockdown is expected to last at least through Thursday.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this story.
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Eco-activist Greta Thunberg sets sail for New York
PLYMOUTH, England (AP) — Eco-activist Greta Thunberg has set sail from the English coastline for New York as part of her campaign to pressure politicians to put climate change at the top of their agendas.
The Malizia II caught the wind mid-afternoon Wednesday and the sleek sailboat sped away from Plymouth on its two-week journey.
The16-year-old activist is hitching a ride on the high-tech yacht to attend the U.N. climate summits next month in New York and in Santiago, Chile, in December. She has decided to take a year off from school to travel.
The 60-foot (18-meter) yacht is outfitted with solar panels and underwater turbines to generate electricity, allowing Thunberg to make a zero-carbon trans-Atlantic journey.
Thunberg says there will be challenges ahead, such as seasickness, but that she is looking forward to the adventure.