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Hong Kong’s shuttered Apple Daily democracy newspaper wins press freedom award

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Jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the staff of his now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper have been awarded a prestigious press freedom prize by the World Association of News Publishers.

Apple Daily, formerly Hong Kong’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper, collapsed in June after authorities froze its assets under a national security law imposed by Beijing to curb dissent.

Lai, the paper's outspoken founder, and multiple senior executives and editors have been detained on “foreign collusion” charges over Apple Daily's support for international sanctions against China.

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Warren Fernandez, president of the World Editors Forum, said this year's Golden Pen of Freedom award highlighted the “fears and challenges” of journalists who face increasing curbs in Hong Kong, a regional media hub.

“The jailing of a publisher, the arrest of an editor-in-chief and his senior colleagues, the shuttering of a newsroom, and the closure of a media title — the 2021 Golden Pen award recognises, and reflects on, all of these,” Fernandez said at a virtual ceremony on Wednesday.

Apple Daily was renowned for its acerbic criticism of China's leaders and Beijing made no secret of its desire to see the tabloid silenced.

Sebastien Lai, receiving the award on behalf of his father, said there will be “less and less people shining light in these dark corners” given Apple Daily's shutdown and the ongoing crackdown on journalism in the region.

In a statement announcing the award, the World Association of News Publishers called Lai an “outspoken critic of Beijing's control over Hong Kong and a high-profile supporter of the pro-democracy movement.”

Established in 1961, the Golden Pen of Freedom is an annual award that recognizes outstanding contributions to the defense and promotion of press freedom.

In authoritarian China, all local media is censored and state controlled while foreign media face significant reporting hurdles and visa denials.

Hong Kong has long served as a regional media hub, though it has tumbled down press freedom rankings in recent years as Beijing asserts greater control over the city.

Suppression of local media has increased in the wake of huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago and the subsequent imposition of the security law.

International media maintain a strong presence in the city with organizations including the Financial Times, AFP, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg having regional headquarters in Hong Kong.

But the security law and crackdown on dissent have rattled nerves.

Last month an Australian correspondent from The Economist was denied a visa — the fourth foreign journalist to be refused one without an explanation since 2018.

The New York Times relocated its Asia news hub to South Korea last year citing both the security law and multiple visa delays.

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Nine-member ‘gang’ guilty of money laundering in UAE referred court

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Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have rounded up nine suspects who have been found guilty of laundering funds collected from “theft and fraud operations,” according to a report from official UAE state media WAM.

The UAE Public Prosecution reportedly ordered the defendants to appear in court after the Sharjah Public Prosecution found them targeting workers through an elaborate scheme.

In a statement issued on Wednesday by the Public Prosecution, it said that the “gang of nine suspects” used to issue SIM cards, open bank accounts and obtain ATM cards all under workers’ names.

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The group reportedly ran and managed these accounts through online banking applications, defrauding victims by calling them feigning the identities of bank employees who wanted to update their data or offer the chance to win a monetary prize.

The ruse allowed the nine members to obtain the necessary information, transfer money to other bank accounts they had operated for this purpose, withdraw cash, and then deposit it into accounts belonging to them abroad.

Investigations also revealed that the group of nine forged bank seals.

The Public Prosecution declared in the original statement carried by WAM that it has requested the court to apply the maximum penalty against the accused, in accordance with the provisions of the Federal Decree No. 20 of 2018 on Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism.

This law stipulates that a temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than AED 300,000 ($81,600) and no more than AED 10,000,000 ($2.7 million) be charged to the perpetrators of the crime.

The Public Prosecution confirmed in the statement that necessary legal actions have been taken against the culprits and urged the public to be “cautious and not to cooperate or respond to fraudsters.”

According to a Bloomberg report, the UAE is at “increased risk of being placed on a global watchdog’s list of countries” subject to more oversight for shortcomings in combating money laundering and terrorist financing, even after a recent government push to stamp out illicit transactions.

The Central Bank of UAE established a dedicated department in August 2020 to handle all Anti-Money Laundering and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism matters (AML/CFT), which the Banking Supervision Department handled previously.

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North Korea hints at restarting nuclear, ICBM tests, defying repeated US warnings

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Accusing the United States of hostility and threats, North Korea on Thursday said it will consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities” it had paused during its diplomacy with the Trump administration, in an apparent threat to resume testing of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party where officials set policy goals for “immediately bolstering” the North’s military capabilities to counter the Americans’ “hostile moves.”

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Officials gave instructions to “reconsider in an overall scale the trust-building measures that we took on our own initiative … and to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” the KCNA said.

The North’s Foreign Ministry had already warned of stronger and more explicit action after the Biden administration last week imposed fresh sanctions over the North’s continued missile testing activity. The latest North Korean threat came as the UN Security Council scheduled a closed-door meeting for Thursday to discuss North Korea and non-proliferation matters.

The North has been ramping up its weapons demonstrations recently, including four rounds of missile launches just this month, amid a prolonged freeze in nuclear diplomacy with the United States.

Experts say Kim is reviving Pyongyang’s old playbook of brinkmanship to extract concessions from Washington and neighbors as he grapples with a decaying economy crippled by the pandemic, mismanagement, and US-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions.

Kim announced a unilateral suspension of his nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2018 as he initiated diplomacy with then-President Donald Trump in an attempt to leverage his nukes for badly needed economic benefits.

Their summitry came after a provocative run in North Korean nuclear and intercontinental range ballistic missile testing in 2017 that demonstrated Kim’s pursuit of an arsenal that can viably target the American homeland and resulted in him exchanging threats of nuclear annihilation with Trump.

But negotiations have stalled since the collapse of their second summit in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

At the end of that year, Kim vowed to further bolster his nuclear arsenal in face of “gangster-like” US threats and pressure and declared a “frontal breakthrough” against sanctions while urging his people to stay resilient in a struggle for economic self-reliance.

He then said the North was no longer obligated to maintain its suspension on nuclear and ICBM tests, which Trump touted as a major foreign policy achievement.

However, the pandemic thwarted many of Kim’s economic goals as the North imposed a lockdown and halted most of its trade with China, its major ally and economic lifeline.

North Korea appeared this month to have resumed railroad freight traffic with China that had been suspended for two years.

North Korea conducted its sixth and last test of a nuclear explosive device in September 2017 and its last launch of an ICBM was in November that year.

Some experts say that the North could dramatically raise the ante in weapons demonstrations after the end of February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. They say Pyongyang’s leadership likely feels it would take a dramatic provocation to move the needle with the Biden administration, which has offered open-ended talks but showed no willingness to ease sanctions unless Kim takes real steps to wind down his nuclear and missile program.

“The present US administration persists in maneuvers to deprive the DPRK of its right to self-defense. All the facts clearly prove once again that the hostile policy towards the DPRK will exist in the future, too as long as there is the hostile entity of US imperialism,” the KCNA said in its report about the Politburo meeting, using an abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It said the Politburo members unanimously recognized the need for North Korea to be prepared for a long-term confrontation with the United States and called for practical measures to “more reliably and effectively increase our physical strength for defending dignity, sovereign rights and interests of our state.”

Kim in recent years had showcased some new weapons he may wish to test, including what appeared to be North Korea’s largest-ever ICBM that was rolled out during a military parade in October 2020.

He also issued an ambitious wish list of sophisticated weaponry early last year while setting a five-year plan to develop military forces, which included hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel ICBMs, spy satellites and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

If the North does stage another nuclear test, it may use that event to claim it acquired an ability to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a purported hypersonic missile it tested twice so far this year, experts say.

Last week, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs, in its response to North Korea’s earlier tests this month.

The State Department ordered sanctions against another North Korean, a Russian man and a Russian company for their broader support of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction activities. The Biden administration also said it would pursue additional UN sanctions over the North’s continued tests.

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Putin will pay ‘dear price’ if Russia invades Ukraine: US President Biden

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President Joe Biden said Wednesday he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine and warned President Vladimir Putin that his country would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible cutoff from the global banking system if it does.

Biden, speaking at a news conference to mark his one-year anniversary in office, also said a “minor incursion” by Russia would elicit a lesser response.

He later sought to clarify that he was referring to a non-military action, such as a cyberattack, that would be met with a similar reciprocal response, and that if Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border, killing Ukrainian fighters, “that changes everything.”

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But the comments also hinted at the challenge of keeping the United States and its NATO allies united in their response to Russia. In explaining the minor incursion remark, he said “it’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page.”

The news conference came at a critical moment in Europe as Russia has amassed 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and a series of talks in Europe last week failed to ease tensions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. On Wednesday, Blinken met with Ukraine’s president in Kyiv and he heads to Berlin on Thursday for talks with allies.

Biden reiterated that he did not think that Putin has made a final decision on whether to invade, but speculated “my guess is he will move in.”

Even after he sought to clarify his comments about a potential NATO response to a “minor incursion” by Russia, the White House moved quickly to make clear that Biden was not telegraphing to Putin that the US would tolerate some military action against Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that the Russians could turn to an “extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics.”

“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies,” Psaki said in a statement.

As the White House did cleanup, Biden faced a barrage of criticism over the “minor incursion” remark.

“This is the wrong way to view this threat,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who was part of a bipartisan congressional delegation that traveled to Kyiv over the weekend to meet with Ukrainian officials. “Any incursion by the Russian military into Ukraine should be viewed as a major incursion because it will destabilize Ukraine and freedom-loving countries in Eastern Europe.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, said that Biden effectively “gave Putin a green light to invade Ukraine by yammering about the supposed insignificance of a ‘minor incursion.’”

“He projected weakness, not strength,” Sasse said.

If Russia invades, Biden said that one action under consideration was limiting Russian transactions in US financial institutions, including “anything that involves dollar denominations.”

Biden was referring to potentially limiting Russia’s access to “dollar clearing,” the conversion of payments by banks on behalf of clients into US dollars from rubles or other foreign currency, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to comment publicly.

The US president said he believes the decision will “solely” be Putin’s and suggested he was not fully confident that the Russian officials with whom top White House advisers have been negotiating are fully informed about Putin’s thinking.

“There’s a question of whether the people they’re talking to know what he’s going to do,” Biden said.

Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way. The president urged the country not to panic.

Russian military activity has been increasing in recent weeks, but the US has not concluded whether Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze the security concessions without an actual conflict.

Biden, who spoke with Putin twice last month, said he’s made it clear to him that Russia would face severe sanctions. Still, he said the decision for Putin could come down to “what side of the bed” he wakes up on.

“He’s never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, No. 1,” Biden warned. “This is not all just a cake walk for Russia,” Biden said. “They’ll pay a stiff price immediately” and in the medium and long term “if they do it.”

In Kyiv, Blinken reiterated Washington’s demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by removing its forces from the border area, something that Moscow has flatly refused to do. And, Blinken said he wouldn’t give Russia the written response it expects to its security demands when he and Lavrov meet in Geneva.

Meanwhile, a top Russian diplomat said Moscow would not back down from its insistence that the US formally ban Ukraine from ever joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine but that its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.

The US and its allies have said the Russian demands are non-starters, that Russia knows they are and that Putin is using them in part to create a pretext for invading Ukraine, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia. The former Soviet republic aspires to join the alliance, though has little hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also reassured Ukraine’s leader of NATO support while calling for Ukrainians to stand strong.

Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the US and its allies were steadfast in backing his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through “relentless aggression.”

“Our strength depends on preserving our unity and that includes unity within Ukraine,” he told Zelenskyy. “I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that.”

The Biden administration had said earlier it was providing an additional $200 million in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance is coming and that it would only increase should Russia invade.

Washington and its allies have kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.

Ryabkov insisted, however, that there can’t be any meaningful talks on those issues if the West doesn’t heed the main Russian requests for the non-expansion of NATO with a formal response. He said the Russian demands are “a package, and we’re not prepared to divide it into different parts, to start processing some of those at the expense of standing idle on others.”

Blinken, though, said no such formal response was coming. “I won’t be presenting a paper at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” he said. “We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue.”

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