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Iran hangs former defense ministry official over spy claim

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Iran hangs former defense ministry official over spy claim

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran said Saturday it executed a former high-ranking defense ministry official and dual Iranian-British national, despite international warnings not to carry out the death sentence. The execution further escalated tensions with the West amid the nationwide anti-government protests shaking the Islamic Republic.

The hanging of Ali Reza Akbari, a close ally of top security official Ali Shamkhani, suggests an ongoing power struggle within Iran’s theocracy as it tries to contain the demonstrations over the September death of Mahsa Amini. It also harkened back to the mass purges of the military that immediately followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Akbari’s hanging drew immediate anger from London, which along with the U.S. and others has sanctioned Iran over the protests and its supplying Russia with the bomb-carrying drones now targeting Ukraine.

“This was a callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in the United Kingdom and separately warned: “This will not stand unchallenged.”

The United Kingdom sanctioned Iran’s prosecutor-general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, on Saturday night “with immediate effect” over Akbari’s execution.

Iran similarly summoned the British ambassador after the execution.

Iran’s Mizan news agency, associated with the country’s judiciary, announced Akbari’s hanging without saying when it happened. However, there were rumors he had been executed days earlier.

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Iran has alleged, without providing evidence, that Akbari served as a source for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6. A lengthy statement issued by Iran’s judiciary claimed Akbari received large sums of money, his British citizenship and other help in London for providing information to the intelligence service.

However, Iran long has accused those who travel abroad or have Western ties of spying, often using them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Akbari, who ran a private think tank, is believed to have been arrested in 2019, but details of his case only emerged in recent weeks. Those accused of espionage and other crimes related to national security are usually tried behind closed doors, where rights groups say they do not choose their own lawyers and are not allowed to see evidence against them.

Iranian state television aired a highly edited video of Akbari discussing the allegations, footage that resembled other claimed confessions that activists have described as coerced confessions.

The BBC Farsi-language service aired an audio message from Akbari on Wednesday, in which he described being tortured.

“By using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me to madness and forced me to do whatever they wanted,” Akbari said in the audio. “By the force of gun and death threats they made me confess to false and corrupt claims.”

Iran has not commented on the torture claims. However, the United Nations human rights chief has warned Iran against the “weaponization” of the death penalty as a means to put down the protests.

On Friday, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel also criticized Akbari’s pending execution.

“The charges against Ali Reza Akbari and his sentencing to execution were politically motivated. His execution would be unconscionable,” he said. “We are greatly disturbed by the reports that Mr. Akbari was drugged, tortured while in custody, interrogated for thousands of hours, and forced to make false confessions.”

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He added: “More broadly, Iran’s practices of arbitrary and unjust detentions, forced confessions and politically motivated executions are completely unacceptable and must end.”

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said he was “horrified” by Akbari’s execution.

“The Islamic Republic’s unjust detentions, forced confessions, sham trials and politically motivated executions must end,” he wrote online.

French President Emmanuel Macron also decried what he called “a heinous and barbaric act.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Twitter that the execution “is a further inhuman act by the Iranian regime.”

Iran is one of the world’s top executioners. However, it wasn’t immediately clear when the last time of a former or current high-ranking defense official had been executed. In 1984, Iran executed its navy chief Adm. Baharam Afzali along with nine other military people on a charge of spying for the Soviet Union.

Iran’s government for months has been trying to allege — without offering evidence — that foreign countries have fomented the unrest gripping the Islamic Republic since the death of 22-year-old Amini in September after her detention by the morality police. Protesters say they are angry over the collapse of the economy, heavy-handed policing and the entrenched power of the country’s Islamic clergy.

For several years, Iran has been locked in a shadow war with the United States and Israel, marked by covert attacks on its disputed nuclear program. The killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in 2020, which Iran blamed on Israel, indicated foreign intelligence services had made major inroads. Iran mentioned that scientist in discussing Akbari’s case, though it’s unclear what current information, if any, he would have had on him.

Akbari had previously led the implementation of a 1988 cease-fire between Iran and Iraq following their devastating eight-year war, working closely with U.N. observers. He served as a deputy defense minister under Shamkhani during reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s administration, likely further making his credentials suspicious to hard-liners within Iran’s theocracy.

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Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, the country’s top security body which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees. Akbari’s audio message aired by the BBC Persian included him saying he was accused of obtaining top-secret information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt.” However, it appears Shamkhani remains in his role.

The anti-government protests now shaking Iran are one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

At least 520 protesters have been killed and 19,400 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.

Iran has executed four people after convicting them of charges linked to the protests in similarly criticized trials, including attacks on security forces.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Beryl was closing in on the southeastern Caribbean, and government officials late Sunday pleaded with people to take shelter from the dangerous Category 3 storm.

The storm was expected to make landfall in the Windward Islands on Monday morning. Hurricane warnings were in effect for Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Tobago and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” warned the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, saying Beryl was “forecast to bring life-threatening winds and storm surge.”

Beryl was centered about 110 miles (175 kilometers) south-southeast of Barbados early Monday. It had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) and was moving west at 20 mph (31 kph). It is a compact storm, with hurricane-force winds extending 30 miles (45 kilometers) from its center.

It had gained Category 4 strength Sunday before weakening slightly, and further fluctuations in strength were forecast.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Martinique and Trinidad. A tropical storm watch was issued for Dominica, Haiti’s entire southern coast, and from Punta Palenque in the Dominican Republic west to the border with Haiti.

Beryl was expected to pass just south of Barbados early Monday and then head into the Caribbean Sea as a major hurricane on a path toward Jamaica. It was forecast to weaken by midweek, but still remain a hurricane while heading toward Mexico.

Historic hurricane

Beryl initially strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane Sunday morning, becoming the first major hurricane east of the Lesser Antilles on record for June, according to Philip Klotzbach, Colorado State University hurricane researcher.

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It took Beryl only 42 hours to strengthen from a tropical depression to a major hurricane — a feat accomplished only six other times in Atlantic hurricane history, and with Sept. 1 as the previous earliest date, hurricane expert Sam Lillo said.

 

 

People disassemble a beach bar's awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

People disassemble a beach bar’s awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

Beryl then gained more power, becoming the earliest Category 4 Atlantic hurricane on record, besting Hurricane Dennis, which became a Category 4 storm on July 8, 2005, hurricane specialist and storm surge expert Michael Lowry said.

“Beryl is an extremely dangerous and rare hurricane for this time of year in this area,” Lowry said in a phone interview. “Unusual is an understatement. Beryl is already a historic hurricane and it hasn’t struck yet.”

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was the last strong hurricane to hit the southeastern Caribbean, causing catastrophic damage in Grenada as a Category 3 storm.

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“So this is a serious threat, a very serious threat,” Lowry said of Beryl.

Reecia Marshall, who lives in Grenada, was working a Sunday shift at a local hotel, preparing guests and urging them to stay away from windows as she stored enough food and water for everyone.

She said that she was a child when Hurricane Ivan struck and that she doesn’t fear Beryl.

“I know it’s part of nature. I’m OK with it,” she said. “We just have to live with it.”

Forecasters warned of a life-threatening storm surge of up to 9 feet (3 meters) in areas where Beryl makes landfall, with 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 centimeters) of rain for Barbados and nearby islands and possibly 10 inches in some areas (25 centimeters).

Warm waters are fueling Beryl, with ocean heat content in the deep Atlantic the highest on record for this time of year, said Brian McNoldy, a tropical meteorology researcher at the University of Miami.

Lowry said the waters are now warmer than they would be at the peak of the hurricane season in September.

Beryl marks the farthest east that a hurricane has formed in the tropical Atlantic in June, breaking a record set in 1933, according to Klotzbach.

“Please take this very seriously and prepare yourselves,” said Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “This is a terrible hurricane.”

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Bracing for the storm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)
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Long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores in Barbados and other islands as people rushed to prepare for a storm that rapidly intensified.

Thousands of people were in Barbados for Saturday’s Twenty20 World Cup final, cricket’s biggest event, with Prime Minister Mia Mottley noting that not all fans were able to leave Sunday despite many rushing to change their flights.

“Some of them have never gone through a storm before,” she said. “We have plans to take care of them.”

Mottley said all businesses should close by Sunday evening and warned that the airport would close by nighttime.

Across Barbados, people prepared, including Peter Corbin, 71, who helped his son put up plywood to protect his home’s glass doors. He said by phone that he worried about Beryl’s impact on islands just east of Barbados.

“That’s like a butcher cutting up a pig,” he said. “They’ve got to make a bunker somewhere. It’s going to be tough.”

In St. Lucia, Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre announced a national shutdown for Sunday evening and said schools and businesses would remain closed Monday.

“Preservation and protection of life is a priority,” he said.

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Looking ahead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Beryl's winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

 

Hurricane Beryl’s winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
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Caribbean leaders were preparing not only for Beryl, but for a cluster of thunderstorms trailing the hurricane that had a 70% chance of becoming a tropical depression.

“Do not let your guard down,” Mottley said.

Beryl is the second named storm in what is forecast to be an above-average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 in the Atlantic. Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Alberto came ashore in northeastern Mexico with heavy rains that resulted in four deaths.

On Sunday evening, a tropical depression formed near the eastern Mexico coastal city of Veracruz, with the National Hurricane Center warning of flooding and mudslides.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2024 hurricane season is likely to be well above average, with between 17 and 25 named storms. The forecast calls for as many as 13 hurricanes and four major hurricanes.

An average Atlantic hurricane season produces 14 named storms, seven of them hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

PANAMA CITY (AP) — A judge has acquitted 28 people accused of money laundering in an international case known as the Panama Papers, including the co-founder of a law firm that authorities say was at the center of a conspiracy to hide money linked to illegal activities.

Jürgen Mossack founded Mossack & Fonseca with then associate Ramón Fonseca, who died in May. Mossack was acquitted on Friday along with others after a Panamanian judge found that the evidence against Mossack didn’t comply with the chain of custody after authorities raided the office of the now defunct firm.

Prosecutors had accused Mossack, Fonseca and others of creating offshore companies and using complex transactions to hide money from illegal activities related to the so-called car wash corruption scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to a charge related to using shell companies to hide millions of dollars in bribes paid worldwide to win public contracts.

The judge noted that other evidence in the Panama Papers case “was not sufficient and conclusive to determine the criminal responsibility of the accused.”

In addition, the judge lifted personal and property precautionary measures against all the defendants, according to a judicial statement.

“We feel satisfied in the midst of mixed emotions, because many lives were affected along the way,” Guillermina Mc Donald, who was the defense attorney for Mossack and Fonseca, told The Associated Press. Her firm also represented 80% of the accused firm’s collaborators.

Judge Balaoisa Marquínez had decided to combine the Panama Papers case with another known as “Operation Car Wash,” a major anti-corruption investigation that began in Brazil.

On Friday, she ruled that in the car wash case, “it was not possible to determine the entry of money from illicit sources, coming from Brazil, into the Panamanian financial system with the purpose of hiding, concealing, disguising or helping to evade the legal consequences of the preceding crime.”

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In June 2022, Mossack, Fonseca and 37 other people were acquitted in a separate money laundering case.

The investigation in Brazil began in 2014, with the Mossack & Fonseca firm later coming under scrutiny after 11 million financial documents tied to the company were leaked.

The repercussions of the leak were widespread: it led to the resignation of a prime minister in Iceland and brought scrutiny to now former leaders of Argentina and Ukraine, Chinese politicians and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others.

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In an increasingly divisive political sphere, Becka Robbins focuses on what she knows best — books.

Operating out of a tiny room in Fabulosa Books in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the oldest gay neighborhoods in the United States, Robbins uses donations from customers to ship boxes of books across the country to groups that want them.

In an effort she calls “Books Not Bans,” she sends titles about queer history, sexuality, romance and more — many of which are increasingly hard to come by in the face of a rapidly growing movement by conservative advocacy groups and lawmakers to ban them from public schools and libraries.

“The book bans are awful, the attempt at erasure,” Robbins said. She asked herself how she could get these books into the hands of the people who need them the most.

Beginning last May, she started raising money and looking for recipients. Her books have gone to places like a pride center in west Texas and an LGBTQ-friendly high school in Alabama.

Customers are especially enthusiastic about helping Robbins send books to places in states like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, often writing notes of support to include in the packages. Over 40% of all book bans from July 2022 to June 2023 were in Florida, more than any other state. Behind Florida are Texas and Missouri, according to a report by PEN America, a nonprofit literature advocacy group.

Book bans and attempted bans have been hitting record highs, according to the American Library Association. And the efforts now extend as much to public libraries as school libraries. Because the totals are based on media accounts and reports submitted by librarians, the association regards its numbers as snapshots, with many bans left unrecorded.

PEN America’s report said 30% of the bans include characters of color or discuss race and racism, and 30% have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

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The most sweeping challenges often originate with conservative organizations, such as Moms for Liberty, which has organized banning efforts nationwide and called for more parental control over books available to children.

Moms for Liberty is not anti-LGBTQ+, co-founder Tiffany Justice has told The Associated Press. But about 38% of book challenges that “directly originated” from the group have LGBTQ+ themes, according to the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Justice said Moms for Liberty challenges books that are sexually explicit, not because they cover LGBTQ+ topics.

Among those topping banned lists have been Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” George Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024.

 

An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024. “Books Not Bans” is a program initiated and sponsored by the store that sends boxes of LGBTQ+ books to LGBTQ+ organizations in conservative parts of America where politicians are demonizing and banning books with LGBTQ+ affirming content. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

Robbins said it’s more important than ever to makes these kinds of books available to everyone.

“Fiction teaches us how to dream,” Robbins said. “It teaches us how to connect with people who are not like ourselves, it teaches us how to listen and emphasize.”

She’s sent 740 books so far, with each box worth $300 to $400, depending on the titles.

At the new Rose Dynasty Center in Lakeland, Florida, the books donated by Fabulosa are already on the shelves, said Jason DeShazo, a drag queen known as Momma Ashley Rose who runs the LGBTQ+ community center.

 
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Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the

 

Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the “Books Not Bans” program at Fabulosa Books, packs up LGBTQ+ books to be sent to parts of the country where they are censored on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at the Castro District of San Francisco. The bookstore is sending LGBTQ+ books to where they are censored to counter the rapidly growing effort by anti-LGBTQ+ activists and lawmakers to ban queer-friendly books from public schools and libraries. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

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DeShazo is a family-friendly drag performer and has long hosted drag story times to promote literacy. He uses puppets to address themes of being kind, dealing with bullies and giving back to the community.

DeShazo hopes to provide a safe space for events, support groups and health clinics, and to build a library of banned books.

“I don’t think a person of color should have to search so hard for an amazing book about history of what our Black community has gone through,” DeShazo said. “Or for someone who is queer to find a book that represents them.”

Robbins’ favorite books to send are youth adult queer romances, a rapidly growing genre as conversations about LGBTQ+ issues have become much more mainstream than a decade ago.

“The characters are just like regular kids — regular people who are also queer, but they also get to fall in love and be happy,” Robbins said.

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Ding reported from Los Angeles.

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