Month: April 2020

Iranian Christian Sentenced to Flogging and Prison


International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that on April 21, 2020, Christian human rights activist Mary Fatima Mohammadi received a suspended prison sentence of three months by the Iranian government.

The sentence included a directive ordering Mary to receive a flogging of 10 lashes.

Mary has come under significant pressure from the Iranian authorities over the years because of her Christian human rights activism. In the latest incident, she was arrested because she was present in the area of a protest where Iranians had rallied regarding the government’s downing of Ukrainian Airline Flight 752. The issue of the government’s complicity in targeting the passenger flight remains highly sensitive in Iran. Mary further explained this connection on Instagram, saying that her sentence is a consequence of “protesting against the slaughter of human beings; because of showing sympathy for the families of those who perished on the Ukraine airline crash; because of defending the rights of all humans.”

After her arrest, Mary disappeared for nearly a month before she was discovered in Qarchak Women’s Prison, a jail with a reputation for various types of gender abuse. While there, Mary reported that she was beaten and suffered other kinds of mistreatment at the hands of the officials, including being strip-searched twice. She was eventually released on a bail of 30 million tomans ($2,250 USD) and charged with “disrupting public order by participating in an illegal rally.”

Her court hearing was initially delayed because of COVID-19, but took place on April 17. Iran’s Human Rights Activist News Agency (HANA) reports that during the hearing, the judge repeatedly questioned Mary about her conversion to Christianity. Her case was heard in Branch 6 of the 33rd District Court of Evin before being transferred to Branch 1167 of the Tehran Provincial Criminal Court (Quds Judicial Complex).

Following her sentencing, Mary tweeted: “There is no evidence against me, so I ought to have been acquitted. But instead I was sentenced not only to imprisonment, but also flogging. It should be mentioned that even before the verdict was handed down, I was forced to endure all kinds of torture, none of which was sanctioned by law, and which ought to be considered crimes in themselves. We have refrained from appealing against the verdict because the appeal courts have turned into confirmation courts! I am proud of sympathizing with human beings in the real harsh environment of the streets. This is my conviction and the cost.”

Iran has not publicly sentenced a Christian to a flogging for nearly two years, although persecution has increased during that interim. Because of COVID-19, Iran has evaluated the situation of its thousands of political prisoners. Many Christians were not included in this evaluation, although some were temporarily furloughed and three had their prison sentences canceled. Many political prisoners have complained that during this time of COVID-19, judges are absent, the authorities fail to provide health updates of prisoners to families, and officials have not clarified how furloughed prisoners will be reincorporated into the prison system following COVID-19.

Claire Evans, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “We must not let the number of political prisoners furloughed in Iran because of COVID-19 confuse the issue that Iran has always been one of the top human rights violators in the world. The authorities have made it clear, time and time again, that they do not value their citizens and that they will not tolerate freedom of conscience. The sentencing of Mary Mohammadi is alarming, but unfortunately, not surprising Iran’s government does not want human rights activism, and they do not want Christians exercising their voice publicly. Mary Mohammadi is an example of courage and bravery to us all. We must continue calling on Iran to respect human rights and allow its citizens to voice their convictions of conscience.”

For interviews, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: press@persecution.org

Persecution.org (April 2020) Iranian Christian Sentenced to Flogging and Prison

(Update) $50,000 reward offered for information for homicide of Postal Employee


(Update 04/29/2020) A 21-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the death of an Indianapolis mail carrier.

United States Postal Inspectors, IMPD detectives and FBI Special Agents arrested Tony Cushingberry, 21, Tuesday evening for his involvement in the death of Angela Summers, 45.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is offering a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect(s) who shot and killed a USPS employee.

The USPS employee was shot and killed at approximately 4:00 pm on April 27, 2020, at the 400 block of North Denny St, Indianapolis, Indiana.

According to Fox59:

Officers with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department found a woman with at least one gunshot wound.

She was “awake and talking.”

Medics transported the woman to a local hospital, where she later died.

The Marion County Coroner’s Office identified the woman as 45-year-old Angela Summers. The USPS confirmed she was one of its employees.

Melissa Hardy is having a hard time processing what happened to her friend, Angela Summers. They have been friends for 15 years.

“There was a neighborhood app that had said it was a female and I knew it was close to where she carried and my heart just sank,” Hardy said.

TAKE NO ACTION TO APPREHEND THIS PERSON YOURSELF

If you have any information about this incident, please contact: Crime Stoppers at 317-262-TIPS, all information will be kept strictly confidential.

USPIS.gov (April 2020) Seeking Information for Homicide of Postal Employee

COVID-19 Changes Daily Life of Marines


The work, social and home lives of Marines living in the barracks deviates from life before the pandemic. Marines assigned to the distribution management office, DMO, on Camp Foster, Okinawa, have a unique and difficult task to perform during this time.

DMO Marines are tasked with booking flights for temporary assignments and permanent-change-of-station orders, as well as moving all of a Marine’s personal property to the new location. With the Defense Department’s travel ban, DMO Marines are teleworking to help successfully move Marines and sailors to and from the island.

Communication is the most challenging aspect of teleworking during the outbreak, said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Amanda Martinez, a personal property clerk at Marine Corps Base Camp Butler on Okinawa.

“We are used to face-to-face interactions, but we are having to call and email members, and they’re teleworking as well,” Martinez said. “It has been taking a little bit longer as far as documents being signed and information being sent back and forth.”

The daily lives of U.S. Marines have drastically changed since the outbreak of COVID-19. Marines stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, Okinawa, Japan, have implemented teleworking as a way to practice social distancing and combat the spread of the virus.

While teleworking is an effective way to combat the spread of the virus, it hinders the DMO to operate at its full potential.

“Half of our staff is in office, and half of the staff is teleworking at the barracks. So, we’re trying out a bunch of things to figure out the best way to communicate with our members and our team to make mission,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Ricardo Casarez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the passenger travel office at Camp Butler. “Regardless, we continue to work as a team in order to adapt and overcome COVID-19.”

Not only have their jobs been affected, but so have their daily duties as Marines and the uniforms they wear.

“We are now required to wear masks. It’s become a part of our everyday carries for us, and we are required to maintain social distancing, which are both not part of our daily routines, but it has become a norm for Marines,” Casarez said.

Even the Marines’ physical training schedule has been altered, but it does not stop them from working out however they can.

“We used to PT every day, now it’s all on yourself to maintain your physical fitness,” Martinez said. “It is kind of hard because of the gyms being closed, but a lot of us are just running every day, and do what we can with what we have. We are just adapting and overcoming to still be ready to fight if we have a calling.”

The 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force announced Health Protection Condition Charlie Plus, which prohibits off-base liberty. However, the Marines still see a bright side during these difficult times.

“Due to COVID-19, Marines [are not] able to execute liberty off-base and enjoy the island,” Casarez said. “I think it’s brought camaraderie within units. It has definitely brought that feeling of being close for us. I believe it has made us more united than we have ever been.”

(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brennan Beauton is assigned to Marine Corps Installations Pacific.)

Defense.gov (April 2020) COVID-19 Changes Daily Life of Marines

As Coronavirus Spreads, Authorities Target RFE/RL Journalists In Effort To Control Information


As the coronavirus continues to spread, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists have increasingly found themselves caught between the needs of citizens for reliable information, and the efforts of authoritarian governments to control the public’s understanding of events.

“People in 22 countries depend on our journalism, which is providing critical information to help them protect themselves and keep their families and communities safe,” said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. “But at the same time, we are facing restrictions and threats from authorities who see the independent media as an obstacle to their efforts to control information for their own purposes. Despite this growing pressure, our journalists will not be deterred from our mission of providing objective journalism to our audiences at a time when they need it most.”

RFE/RL’s audience numbers surged in March as concerned audiences sought accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic amid government inaction, disinformation, and an information void.

Compared to the previous month, visits to RFE/RL websites and apps increased 48% to 77 million, page views were up by 43% to 128.5 million, and unique visitors increased 50% to 33.5 million.

Spikes were similarly registered on social media platforms, with video views on Facebook rising by 44% to 351 million, and views on YouTube increasing by 18% to 144.5 million. RFE/RL also saw spectacular growth on Instagram — particularly in Persian, Uzbek, and Tajik — with a 46% jump in video views to 67.5 million for the month.

But there has been push back.

On April 5, the Russian State Duma commission on foreign interference announced a review of coronavirus coverage by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and the Current Time network, alleging that the outlets were misreporting the availability of medical equipment, the role of Russian doctors in Italy, and the enforcement of pandemic-related regulations.

A Moscow neurosurgeon who spoke with Current Time about a lack of protective equipment and supplies at his hospital was threatened with dismissal.

Rights monitors have expressed concern that a law passed on April 1 against knowingly misinforming the public about the coronavirus may be used against reporters who publish coverage critical of the government’s response.

The law has already been used to detain a St. Petersburg activist – and to seize her computers and telephone — who had posted concerns on social media about inadequate quarantine measures at medical facilities in a nearby town.

Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta says it has taken down an article about measures introduced to tackle the coronavirus in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya following a request by the country’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had slammed the article as “absurd” and threatened to harm the author, Yelena Milashina.

Restrictions accompanying Kyrgyzstan’s state of emergency have sidelined RFE/RL journalists by requiring that persons seeking to access central Bishkek – where RFE/RL’s local bureau is located — obtain special passes. Authorities initially claimed that the media would be exempt from the new measures, but journalists with Current Time’s flagship Asia program have received no permissions, while reporters with state media have been allowed to access their downtown offices to work.

Earlier this month, as the magnitude of the pandemic was unfolding among populations around the world, authorities in Tajikistan issued the latest in a string of rulings refusing to accredit RFE/RL journalists and staff.

The Tajik Service’s YouTube page has recorded an explosive 150% increase among subscribers in the past year, to more than 1 million, with much of the growth registered in recent months because of the absence of alternative reporting about the pandemic and any preventive response from the government.

Indeed, the government has avoided public use of the term “coronavirus,” while keeping mosques open and convening public celebrations of national holidays even as its neighbors enforce wholesale lockdowns. When the Service broke the story of the country’s first coronavirus death on April 5, pro-government publishers and trolls retaliated on Facebook, using obscene hashtags to incite violence against its journalists.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s campaign of denial similarly puts journalists reporting on the pandemic at risk. He has dismissed concerns about the coronavirus as a “psychosis,” and exhorted the public to attend the matches of Europe’s only still-fielded soccer league. Award-winning RFE/RL Minsk-based journalist Alexandra Dynko says that journalists in her country “have been vaccinated against fear,” since “on a daily basis they dare to report on what they see and what they hear.”

These measures all come as audiences in RFE/RL’s markets have been bombarded with conspiracy theories about the virus and Russian, Iranian, and Chinese disinformation about its origins and those countries’ responses to it.

RFE/RL’s Armenian and Russian Services have reported extensively to debunk these myths and theories, while RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service has sought to counter a growing anti-EU narrative propagated by the government that misrepresents the role of EU assistance and threatens public health.

RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom has produced video reporting for use throughout RFE/RL’s coverage area on efforts by both China and Russia to target global audiences with COVID-19 propaganda.

RFERL.org (April 2020) As Coronavirus Spreads, Authorities Target RFE/RL Journalists In Effort To Control Information

COVID-19 fraud domain seized from seller who attempted to sell it using bitcoin


U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia obtained a warrant Friday authorizing seizure of coronaprevention.org following an HSI Philadelphia investigation in support of Operation Stolen Promise.

HSI recently launched Operation Stolen Promise to protect the homeland and global supply-chain from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity by combining HSI’s expertise in global trade investigations, financial fraud, and cyber investigations with robust private and public partnerships.

“Sadly, criminals are using the current pandemic as an opportunity to generate proceeds while so many Americans are suffering,” said William S. Walker, acting HSI Philadelphia special agent in charge. “Homeland Security Investigations and our partners will continue to aggressively pursue those who attempt to illegally capitalize on this crisis through illicit money-making schemes.”

The seizure warrant alleges that the owner of the domain name, coronaprevention.org, posted it for sale on a hackers forum.

The post appeared the day after the president declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The seller stated on the forum that this domain would be an effective way to sell “high markup in demand products.”

The seller exponentially marked up the price of the domain. The seller asked for the payment to be made via bitcoin.

The warrant further alleges that the seller engaged in conversations with an undercover agent from HSI about the sale of the domain. The seller stated that it was “genius” to sell “fake testing kits” using this domain.

The seller further stated that the seller “wanted to do that but I couldn’t get enough cash to bulk buy them from Alibaba [a Chinese e-commerce site].” The seller recommended directed the undercover agent on how to set up a new website on the domain using a foreign-based service, so as to prevent U.S. authorities from being able to shut it down in the future.

“We will not tolerate exploitation of this national emergency for personal gain,” said U.S. Attorney Tim Shea. “This office will not allow fraudsters to use anonymous online spaces and cryptocurrency to hide their harmful activities and prey on victims.”

The charges in the warrant are merely allegations, and civil forfeiture proceedings will commence in which any interested party may make a claim to ownership of the seized property.

The enforcement action against the owner of a fraudulent website follows Attorney General William Barr’s recent direction for the department to prioritize the detection, investigation, and prosecution of illegal conduct related to the pandemic.

The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Zia M. Faruqui, Paralegal Specialist Brian Rickers, and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

As part of Operation Stolen Promise, HSI is partnering with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Working Group. Additionally, efforts span multiple HSI components including the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, HSI International Operations, the Illicit Finance and Proceeds of Crime Unit, and the Cyber Crimes Center.

As of April 23, 2020, HSI special agents have opened over 232 cases initiated, 376 total seizures, 329 leads sent, 70 disruptions, seized over three million dollars in illicit proceeds; made six arrests; executed 12 search warrants; sinkholed over 11,000 COVID-19 domain names and worked alongside CBP to seize over 225 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits, treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, purported anti-viral products and personal protective equipment.

The launch of the operation is in direct response to a significant increase in criminal activity.

To report suspected illicit criminal activity or fraudulent schemes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, email Covid19Fraud@dhs.gov.

ICE.gov (April 2020)COVID-19 fraud domain seized from seller who attempted to sell it using bitcoin