The Guardian 2024-02-17 22:30:56


Murder victim repeatedly visited police in fear. They said she was ‘cop shopping’

Murder victim Kelly Wilkinson repeatedly visited police in fear. They said she was ‘cop shopping’

Exclusive: Family calls for inquest, saying Wilkinson visited police ‘almost every day’ before she was murdered by her husband in 2021

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In the final frantic days before she was murdered, Kelly Wilkinson visited multiple police stations, warning she was in danger. Official police notes say she was “cop shopping”.

On Wednesday, Wilkinson’s estranged husband, Brian Earl Johnston, a former US Marine, pleaded guilty to her murder. A court has previously heard that Johnston tied Wilkinson to a clothesline and set her on fire on 20 April 2021.

While he awaits sentencing, Johnston’s guilty plea brings his two-year murder case to an end. Now, Wilkinson’s family is pursuing an inquest to examine how the system was unable to protect her, despite clear evidence that Johnston posed a lethal risk. Police have already conceded the case represents a “failure”.

At the beginning of April 2021, police charged Johnston with four serious domestic violence offences against Wilkinson. He was given watch house bail.

In the weeks that followed, Wilkinson attempted to speak to police “almost every day” about her concerns in relation to Johnston, her sister, Natalie Wilkinson told the Gold Coast Bulletin in 2021, including allegations he had breached the conditions of his domestic violence order.

Another sister, Danielle Carroll, said at that time that Kelly had told police, “I am scared for my life, I am scared for my children’s life. We are not safe”.

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One day that month, Wilkinson was turned away from the Southport police station on the Gold Coast. Her family says she was told at the station counter there was no one available who could help with a domestic violence matter.

Frustrated at the response, she drove to another police station, about 15 minutes away, at Runaway Bay.

Guardian Australia can reveal that a police “occurrence” report from the time described Wilkinson’s actions – visiting separate police stations – as “cop shopping”. Police said internal investigations have identified “no allegations” in relation to the term.

‘Ultimately it’s a failure. A woman has died’

Two days after Wilkinson was murdered, the Queensland police assistant commissioner in charge of domestic violence responses, Brian Codd, was asked if her death had been preventable.

“Wouldn’t you love to turn back time,” he said.

“It’s important that we examine to what extent it is a systemic failure.

“Ultimately it’s a failure. A woman has died. Somewhere along the line, she had engaged with the system, with us.”

Another domestic violence death a few weeks earlier – the killing of Doreen Langham by her estranged partner – had raised similar concerns.

An inquest into Langham’s death found that the police response to her had been beset by “so many inadequacies” and that her complaints were simply “not properly investigated”.

The two incidents brought about a reckoning – of sorts – for the way police respond to domestic violence reports, helping pave the way for the state’s subsequent commission of inquiry in 2022. They were also remarkably similar.

Langham separated from her “controlling and abusive” partner, Gary Hely, 15 days before she was killed. In that time she had “made more than 20 calls and spoken to at least 16 separate officers” reporting threats and concerns about Hely.

“She reported breaches to the police five times in the week before she was murdered and all but one officer told her to basically go away and don’t come back and just come into the station once a week because you’re coming in too often to report breaches,” criminologist Kerry Carrington told the inquest.

The murder charges against Johnston, who suffered severe burns and was “barely” able to talk for months after the incident, mean the coroner’s court has yet to investigate the response to Wilkinson’s pleas for help. It is unclear yet whether an inquest will be held.

Johnston’s barrister told the court on Wednesday there were “some factual matters that remain contested in relation to the background of the relationship” and it is understood Johnston denied offences for which he was charged in early April 2021, and made subject to a domestic violence order.

Warning signs

Days after Wilkinson was killed, Johnston’s lawyer told reporters that “obviously, no one expected this to happen”.

There were several signs that Johnston posed a potential lethal risk, in addition to Wilkinson’s reports.

Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board has identified separation as a risk factor for domestic and family violence homicides. Separation – or the intent to separate – was identified in more than half of intimate partner killings since 2006.

In 58% of cases, researchers found an underlying history of domestic or family violence prior to a murder – though they say this figure is likely much higher “due to the well-established understanding that victims of domestic and family violence under-report their experiences to formal services”.

Johnston’s history as a military veteran is another clear factor that would heighten the risk to Wilkins. It has been documented that he was suffering from mental health concerns and had disclosed suicidal thoughts to counsellors.

Angela Lynch, a sexual and domestic violence protection advocate, says the simple fact Wilkinson was presenting to police with “high levels of fear” was also relevant to assessing risk.

“The level of risk was high and should have been recognised,” Lynch said.

“The charges against him should have been easily accessible to police to undertake a history check very quickly.”

Lynch said an inquest was needed to highlight “a range of systemic concerns” highlighted by the case, including the decision to grant Johnston bail.

The Queensland Police Service said in a statement that the ethical standards command had conducted an investigation “as a result of a targeted inquiry from the coroner” and that it had identified “no allegations relating to the term ‘cop shopping’.”

The statement said police were implementing recommendations from the Queensland Women’s Safety and Justice taskforce, and the commission of inquiry into the QPS, in relation to domestic and family violence.

“Understanding the dynamics of domestic and family violence and seeking protection or providing safe and effective support to a victim-survivor will ensure victims no longer live in fear of their abuser, and children can grow in healthy family relationships free from abuse and violence,” the statement said.

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Kremlin plays for time after Navalny’s death

‘They’re doing everything to avoid handing over his body’: Kremlin plays for time after Navalny’s death

In Russia, the battle to eradicate the opposition leader and his legacy will continue long after his death

In Russia, it is not enough to kill an opposition leader. His ageing mother must travel to the Arctic Circle to search a prison colony and a morgue for his body. Russians with the temerity to lay carnations in his memory must be detained.

Even a preliminary cause of death, “sudden death syndrome”, was misleading, as though his death behind bars was not years in the making.

All this happened the day after Alexei Navalny died, as the bureaucratic machinery of the vast Russian state swung into gear, brushing over the Kremlin critic’s death with a veneer of official disdain and petty cruelty.

“It’s obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body,” said Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, as 69-year-old Lyudmila, his mother, and a lawyer battled to retrieve his body in the city of Salekhard.

Maybe next week, investigators told them, saying the cause of death had not been established and there were still tests to run.

“Putin killed Alexei Navalny,” said Georgy Alburov, a Navalny ally and researcher for his Anti-Corruption Foundation. “How exactly he did it will certainly be exposed, but right now we will observe an endless marathon of lies and playing for time. Putin will do everything to make it impossible to establish what actually happened to Alexei.”

For now, Russia tries to stymie Navalny’s family and supporters, with no act of interference too small to disrupt memorials to a defiant critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The task is shared among thousands of state employees, from the Kremlin officials to investigators, prosecutors and judges, riot police, prison guards, television anchors and writers, and many more, each contributing a small bit to an irresistible force that has crushed whatever Russia had of a pro-democracy movement.

Nothing personal. That’s the job. Just as Vladimir Putin never mentioned Navalny by name, so the Russian politician barely merited a mention on state television, the better for the public to forget about him.

Instead, in the short segments referencing his death, he was referred to with a new title coined by the penitentiary service: “The convict.” But generally, state media ignored his passing.

At protests outside Russian embassies around the world, as well as inside Russia, his supporters sought to memorialise his name.

“Hello, this is Navalny!” some chanted, a reference to the intro for his investigative YouTube films, which helped build him a wide public following based on his anti-corruption agenda and acerbic wit.

He had placed a bet on imagining a happier Russia, where people were encouraged to act morally. “We have everything – but we are an unhappy country … Russia should not only be free, but also happy. Russia will be happy,” he said at a final courtroom appearance in 2021.

And in a country dominated by apathy towards politics, he also encouraged activism and energy: “If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong … we need to utilise this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.”

Many of those clocked in and grabbed their riot shields and batons on Saturday, as small groups of dedicated supporters headed to vigils or individual pickets in 32 cities to protest what they believed was a political assassination of Navalny by Vladimir Putin.

“Navalny was killed because we didn’t care,” one protester wrote on a sign in front of St Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral. He was quickly detained, as were 358 others in cities across Russia.

It was hardly the largest protest Russia has seen, but any demonstration now is of note, since authorities have effectively banned public gatherings.

“Why be afraid? You only live once,” said one young woman speaking on camera to Sotavision, an independent Russian media outlet.

“If you don’t come now, then when?… It’s still not [as bad as] Belarus yet, it’s still possible to go out and speak your opinion.”

When they didn’t make arrests, police still engaged in tense back-and-forths with Navalny supporters.

“Go grieve in the subway,” one said, as he dispersed a crowd at the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to the victims of political repression, near the former KGB headquarters in Moscow.

The cycle of death and state obfuscation has played out predictably, as it did with the assassination of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin walls in 2015.

On Friday, the president appeared smiling and joking with factory workers in Chelyabinsk, hours after he had been informed about Navalny’s death, according to press secretary Dmitry Peskov.

By Saturday yesterday evening, Navalny’s mother in Salekhard still could not locate his body. At the prison colony, she was told it was in the morgue. The morgue was closed.

For now, his supporters grapple with his loss.

“It’s very, very difficult,” wrote Maria Pevchikh, a close ally who heads investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. “It’s unbearable … Just remember, we are in this horror together, and we need to get out of it together too.

“Navalny is an impossible loss, irreparable.”

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The push to protect Victoria’s Alpine national park

‘Australians haven’t actually started living on this continent like they are from here and they have a responsibility of custodianship,’ Wiradjuri river guide Richard Swain says. Photograph: Otis Filley/The Guardian

Native species are losing ground in Victoria’s Alpine park as the brumby population booms

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by Otis Filley

The journey from Cooma in southern New South Wales to Native Cat Flat in Victoria’s Alpine national park is a challenging trek along rugged four-wheel-drive tracks. For Richard Swain, a Wiradjuri man born in the Snowy Mountains, it’s worth the trip. We are headed to an area of remnant vegetation, fenced off from the more than 2,700 feral horses that live in the national park and Bogong High Plains.

There are four exclusion plots, each bordered by a modest wire fence. Behind the fences, lush sphagnum, dense vegetation, grass tussocks, shrubs and herbs thrive, showcasing an alpine landscape unaffected by the presence of horses.

Outside the fence, the ground is pockmarked with deep hoofprints and the native grasses are overgrazed. It looks like a paddock, not a sensitive alpine ecosystem.

“Australians haven’t actually started living on this continent like they are from here and they have a responsibility of custodianship,” Swain says.

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Swain is a river guide and the Indigenous ambassador for the Invasive Species Council. He says that the hard-hoofed mentality of colonisation persists in the high country, supported by the romantic imagery of Banjo Paterson poems. But that world of mountain cattlemen with oilskin coats and creaking saddles only existed from 1840 to about 1950. A ban on grazing cattle in the Victorian high country was introduced in 2005. Swain says many still weigh the value of that recent cultural heritage against the natural heritage values, and put natural values – and native species – last.

At least 100 native species have gone extinct in the 236 years since European settlement of Australia. Swain is concerned that two critically endangered species endemic to the high plains, the broad-toothed rat and alpine water skink, could be next.

“This is the habitat that is required for our critically endangered species, and in this entire wetland you’ve got only these four plots, not even as big as a tennis court … the rest of it is mowed off like a golf course,” Swain says. “If you ever want to know what horses do to the high mountain country, this is it.”

The horses do more than leave hoofprints. In breaking up the vegetation, they fundamentally change the ecosystem.

“The mountains were meant to be this thick vegetation – when the snow lands here, it doesn’t sit hard on the ground like it does out there, it sits on top of this vegetation, which allows for what’s called the subnivean space,” Swain says. “The skinks of the mountains thermoregulate, they need this sort of vegetation so they can be low if they want to be cool or high if they want to be warm. And the broad-toothed rat, they don’t actually tunnel in the ground, they tunnel in the vegetation.”

‘Look after the waters’

Gunnai man Wayne Thorpe observes the damage caused by feral species at the source of the seven major waterways on his country. That damage will flow downstream to meet the ocean, including at his home in Lake Tyers. The Gunaikurnai people in East Gippsland historically moved seasonally between the high country and coast: from the Great Dividing Range to Ninety Mile Beach, from west of Wilson’s Prom and Mount Baw Baw, and from east of Snowy River up to Bemm River along the coast.

“We understand that water holds memory,” Thorpe says. “That’s the water’s birth, it’s got the memory from the mountains to the sea. It’s still coming out and it’s forming the creeks and the rivers, and it’s carrying the memory of being trampled.”

Through grazing, trampling, and soil compaction in wetlands, along with their bathing habits, feral horses disrupt stream and river ecosystems, causing erosion, bank slumping, nutrient imbalances, and degraded water quality. This is particularly concerning, Thorpe says, as they roam at the source of many of Australia’s largest and most economically important rivers, including the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy rivers.

“By the time it comes down here, what are people drinking? What are the fish living in? And what are we eating?” Thorpe says.

“We’ve got to recruit more people to be caring for country and therefore custodians. If you like eating clean fish, look after the waters.”

Don Driscoll, professor of terrestrial ecology at Deakin University, says that a failure to preserve alpine ecosystems could have broader impacts on biodiversity.

“They [the broad-toothed rat and alpine water skink] only live in that alpine area, while horses occur across the continent and across other continents,” he says.

“If we can’t protect those animals in the tiny places that they occur and we think we have to spread horses around, even in those areas, there isn’t much hope for biodiversity in general. They really deserve the right to live where they evolved in the alps.”

The past few years have been difficult for researchers and government agencies warning against the impact of feral horses. The former NSW government introduced laws in 2018 to recognise the heritage and cultural value of brumbies and prevent population control through culling. In Victoria, national parks staff received death threats over plans to cull through ground shooting.

The Minns government in October reinstated aerial culling in Kosciuszko national park after public consultation, a Senate inquiry which found feral horses posed an extinction risk to native species, and an official warning from the federal threatened species committee.

The installation of Labor governments in NSW and federally, in addition to the Victorian Labor government which has maintained support for culling, has given ecologists some renewed hope, says Driscoll.

“For decades, the science has been ignored,” he says. “Now the science is being taken seriously.”

Parks Victoria does not release figures on the number of horses removed, only on the target figure of 500 in the first year outlined in its 2021 feral horse management plan. But Jordan Crook, the parks and nature campaigner at the Victorian National Parks Association, says evidence of a reduction in horse populations is clearly written on the landscape.

But he says that effort is being “undermined by NSW’s protection of [feral horses]”.

“Victoria is doing very well at reducing its feral horses particularly in the national parks, but they can just walk across [from NSW],” he says. “Feral horses don’t know state borders.”

The association was instrumental in the campaigns that led to the creation of the Alpine national park in 1989 and has long advocated for protecting the alps from cattle, horses, and other invasive species.

“The alps and the alpine region is very small, they are very fragile,” Crook says. “Feral species including feral horses do immeasurable damage to those ecosystems and kill and maim wildlife that live in them.”

Rehoming v population control

For many opponents of brumby culling, the relatively recent creation of the national parks, combined with the 2005 final ban on grazing cattle in the high plains was perceived as an assault on their way of life. Culling feral horses further exacerbates this sense of displacement and loss of connection.

Claire Rogerson, based in Dalgety, NSW, is the founder of Snowy Brumby Horsemanship. She focuses on rehabilitating and rehoming brumbies and currently has 32 on her property in various stages of training.

Trapping and rehoming is the solution put forward by Rogerson and many others who connect to a stockman’s view of the high country. But rehoming a brumby takes a high level of skill and feral horse population survey efforts show there are more horses than can reasonably be removed through trapping alone. An advertising campaign by Parks Victoria to rehome trapped brumbies saw only 10 expressions of interest from suitable homes, to take between 38 and 51 horses a year.

Brumby numbers in the Kosciuszko national park have increased by 31% over the past two years. A spokesperson from Parks Victoria told Guardian Australia that damage from invasive species including horses, habitat loss due to bushfires and other impacts of the climate crisis have exacerbated the conservation challenges facing the Alpine national park.

They said Parks Victoria had an “obligation to control invasive species in Victoria’s national parks, including feral horses”.

“There are large numbers of feral horses in alpine areas and the damage they cause is evident,” they said. “The most humane feral horse management techniques have been selected on the best advice.”

Swain says degradation of the mountain valleys due to invasive species can easily be overlooked by the untrained eye, which makes it hard to get public support behind proposals to protect the area from its photogenic invaders.

“If we restore the health of the land and control invasive species, we’ll make progress,” he says. “The biggest threat to our native species is invasive species, and it’s Australia’s culture of not caring enough that is the biggest challenge.”

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Astonishing returns, cult overtones and a ‘perfect virtual world’. How the scheme caught fire online

Astonishing returns, cult overtones and a ‘perfect virtual world’. How the HyperVerse scheme caught fire online

Bizarre videos promoted the alleged Ponzi scheme and senior promoters lived the high life, but for thousands around the world the reality was a huge financial loss

“Can you imagine,” the presenter asks, “owning your own planet?”

“Imagine redesigning a desert planet and turning it into an oasis where human habitat can thrive and blossom.

“Can you imagine that? Only in the universe, the Hyper universe, that is.”

It is December 2021 and people have tuned in to a “spectacular online event” to learn about the chance to invest in something called HyperVerse, a project its promoters claim will rival Facebook’s multi-billion dollar metaverse.

The MC – a woman named Caelee – stands on an illuminated blue stage with a moonscape in the background.

“This is the dawn of the next new beginning of the metaverse with infinite possibilities,” she says.

Members are offered a “trio of opportunities” including blockchain education, daily rewards and the opportunity to trade new products in a “complete virtual world”.

The chief executive of HyperVerse, Steven Reece Lewis, encourages potential investors to become early backers of the movement into the metaverse, while senior community members extol the benefits of this “beautiful vehicle” that could “totally transform your life forever”.

The chairman of the HyperTech group, Sam Lee, speaks, as does HyperTech’s founder, Ryan Xu.

Lee says HyperVerse will allow people “to live a more comfortable and worry-free life”, while Xu promises a “perfect virtual world” unlocked by the project’s unique membership model.

The launch comes amid a whirlwind of promotion.

Messages of support are posted online from the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and the US actor Chuck Norris as the Hyper project gathers momentum.

For potential investors, the project offers astonishing returns.

Memberships start at US$300 and earn daily returns of a minimum of 0.5%, with a tripling of investment earned in 600 days. To take advantage of this “chance of a lifetime”, people are encouraged to build the Hyper community, to make a “better world for average people” and earn more in the process.

But as it turned out the event, and all within it, was a mirage.

Steven Reece Lewis was a paid actor.

The HyperVerse never existed.

Two years later, the collapsed project has been named in US court documents as an alleged “pyramid and Ponzi scheme” that bilked investors worldwide of a “staggering” US$1.89bn (A$2.89bn).

There is no suggestion Wozniak, Norris or Stephen Harrison, the actor who appeared as Reece Lewis, knew the details of the scheme.

‘Materially false and fraudulent pretenses’

In 2022, the community that had been assiduously built up during the pandemic began to fracture, as thousands of members suddenly reported losing access to their funds.

“SORT OUT THE WITHDRAW PROBLEMS!!” one member wrote to the HyperVerse Twitter account.

To try to maintain the faith of the Hyper community, HyperTech launched a new project called HyperNation. This was an even more bizarre offering promoted by a hooded man wearing a gold mask and gloves promising members a universal basic income and a chance to be “liberated and free”. Some senior promoters and many members, alarmed at the change of direction, jumped ship.

But investors worried about recovering their funds were strung along to the next iteration of the scheme, and many followed instructions to put in more funds to guarantee the return of their “1x” – the initial investment.

In January, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lodged a claim in the district court of Maryland naming Lee as one of the alleged co-founders of the HyperNation, HyperVerse and HyperFund schemes. (HyperFund was renamed HyperVerse at the December 2021 launch.)

Brenda Chunga, a senior US promoter otherwise known as Bitcoin Beautée, was also charged.

Xu has not been charged and is not named in the US proceedings.

The claim alleges that the HyperTech group ran a “global, crypto asset-related, multi-level marketing pyramid and Ponzi scheme” which had “no real source of revenue other than funds received from investors”. It alleged that without legitimate revenue sources, “investor withdrawals were paid with new investor deposits”.

The court documents relate to the various Hyper schemes running from about June 2020 to November 2022.

Separately, Lee also faces the criminal charge of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud.

Lee and his co-conspirators stand accused of allegedly “inducing investors to invest … through materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises”.

Lee has claimed that at its peak the HyperVerse community numbered 2 million people.

Lee has said he wanted to increase that to a billion people within three years, while Xu said the HyperTech group had plans to “build an army”.

Lee moved to Dubai in late 2021 but, far from being in hiding, the former frontman of the Hyper schemes has been at pains to present himself as the community’s saviour. Xu’s whereabouts are unknown.

In early 2023, Lee claimed in online zoom meetings with investors he had been “caught off guard” by people’s inability to withdraw funds in the various HyperTech group schemes, and he now wanted to help find a solution.

“I thought there was plenty of money to go around but that, unfortunately, for whatever reason, that did not reach membership,” Lee said.

“I’m here because something went wrong and … just saying it’s wrong is an understatement, it’s gone terribly wrong, but you know I’m here to face the music, I’m here to deal with this.”

The loquacious Australian, who claims to be a “private” person, has fronted countless Zoom meetings amid the fallout, blaming a mystery “corporate” team for the scheme’s failures.

When asked to explain why and how things went wrong, Lee says he has signed non-disclosure agreements preventing him from telling the full story. He has denied the scheme was a scam, and has declined to answer questions from Guardian Australia.

Xu could not be contacted for comment.

Cult-like following

Lee appears to command an almost cult-like following among his supporters.

“Sam, you just put it all on your shoulders, and I want you to know … we all appreciate it, but you don’t have to just have it on your own shoulders,” one senior Australian promoter told Lee in a meeting last year.

In another meeting, a supporter led an 11-minute prayer for Lee, asking God for help “to save this platform”.

Lee appears to cultivate his following carefully. He gives almost sermon-like lectures on blockchain technology and his money-making philosophy, and invites people to visit him in Dubai. He promises to share information not available to others with those prepared to meet him in person. Community meetings emphasise the importance of staying “positive”, and it was not uncommon for members – including those who have lost money – to profess their love to Lee and commitment to their “journey”.

Meetings talked about the Hyper “family”, and when members were unable to withdraw funds, they were asked to keep “faith”.

In an apparent bid to relaunch HyperVerse in mid 2023 – as a new scheme called Hyper Ascension that never eventuated – Lee said he wanted people to join him to “come together and heal”.

“We will turn defeat into victory. And through victory we will bring peace and prosperity to our community.”

Lee is also a member of a Telegram group called “High Tea with Sam” in which he records himself drinking tea or coffee in near-daily updates to a core group of his supporters.

One of Lee’s later projects called We Are All Satoshi offered potential investors a “selfie with Sam Lee” if they bought a package worth US$25,000 or above.

Lee has been linked to a series of investment schemes since the Hyper collapse, including StableDao, Vidilook and VEND. He appeared in a video promoting VEND just last month, within days of being charged in the US.

Lee has claimed he was involved only in the technology side of HyperVerse, but for investors he was always front and centre.

“Community leaders have always projected you as the man with the Midas touch,” one Nepalese investor told Lee in 2023. “HyperTech, HyperVerse, HyperFund, whatever, it’s Sam Lee, it’s Sam Lee, it’s Sam Lee, that is all we have been told day in, day out.”

Hyper promotional material encouraged due diligence and emphasised the importance of Xu and Lee’s business backgrounds and the success of their “multi-billion dollar group of companies” – referring to Blockchain Global, H Cash and Collinstar Capital, which made up the Hyper Tech group.

These companies were Australian.

The ‘crown prince of Bitcoin’ and ‘the Martian’

It was 2014 when Lee and Xu first met at a blockchain event in Melbourne.

Xu, a Chinese national, had moved to the city to be with his girlfriend and claimed he had a lot of spare time on his hands.

Along with fellow blockchain enthusiast Allan Guo, Lee and Xu established the Bitcoin Group, which they hoped would be the first publicly listed bitcoin company in the world.

Speaking in a later blockchain documentary about the listing plan (which ultimately failed), Xu explained. “So many people said we were liars, [said] we were doing pyramid schemes. What I wanted to prove was that if we could … get recognised by mainstream regulators then we should be able to prove to everyone that this industry is a very normal one.”

Lee, just 26 at the time, was feted as the “crown prince of Bitcoin”, and became the poster boy for blockchain technology.

In a promotional video for the Bitcoin Group, a young Lee talked about his “girlfriend”.

“She has never betrayed me, and my wife loves her very much,” he says, smiling, to the camera. “We all know who I’m talking about – it’s Bitcoin!”

Xu, who claims to be one of China’s “four bitcoin kings”, gives himself the nickname “the Martian”.

“I feel like I don’t belong on this Earth,” he explains.

Separately to Bitcoin Group, which was renamed Blockchain Global in 2016, Xu and Lee began their first Hyper project together, headlining a launch event in Hong Kong in 2019 for HyperCapital.

This appears to have laid the foundations for the later Hyper schemes, offering a similar membership model, and high rates of returns.

From as early as 2021, regulators around the world were issuing warnings about HyperFund and later, HyperVerse, but the schemes ran unchecked in Australia, where the companies allegedly behind them were based.

By 2021, just as HyperFund was taking off around the world, Blockchain Global collapsed. It owes creditors $58m, and its directors, including Lee, Xu and Guo, have been referred to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) for alleged potential breaches of the Corporation Act.

Guo is not believed to be involved in the HyperVerse scheme and is not named in the US proceedings. He has not responded to questions from Guardian Australia.

After Guardian Australia’s investigation into HyperVerse, Asic announced last month that it would assess the liquidator’s report, filed in late 2023.

Where is the money?

In early 2022, as investors began reporting that they could not withdraw funds from HyperVerse, the senior US promoter Rodney Burton was shopping for a new Rolls-Royce. He ended up buying two on the same day.

The 54-year-old from Miami, known as Bitcoin Rodney, wasn’t afraid of flaunting his wealth. On Instagram, Burton would post about opulent shopping trips in Dubai where he splurged on designer clothes, drank $3,000 bottles of champagne and ate steak enrobed with 24-carat gold. He claims to have bought a diamond-encrusted Audemars Piguet watch worth $1.4m.

In 2021, he hosted a series of cryptocurrency promotional events, including hiring the $40m Seafair megayacht in Florida South for a $3,500-a-head party featuring the rapper Rick Ross.

Court documents filed against Burton allege he was one of those at the top of the HyperVerse pyramid in the US. Investigators have pinpointed about US$8m he allegedly received from investors through the scheme.

Brenda Chunga, who court documents say was “arguably the face” of HyperVerse’s presence in the US, is alleged by the SEC to have personally received $3.7m from investors.

In an interview in mid-2021, however, Chunga was credited with bringing $640m into the Hyper scheme. “Brenda is the key reason why the United States is on the map,” a fellow senior promoter said.

“She is an exceptional leader … loved by the community, loved by her team.”

If the losses to HyperVerse run to US$1.89bn, as alleged in the court documents, then the millions allegedly pocketed by Chunga and Burton are pocket change.

Crypto tracing undertaken by the law firm Wealth Recovery Solicitors has followed funds lost to HyperVerse to the collapsed HOO exchange, but beyond this, it is unclear where, and to whom, the money has flowed.

The SEC complaint against Lee says the Hyper schemes ran globally, but it is uncertain which countries have been most affected. HyperVerse initially appointed six senior leaders as its authorised presenters, including two in the US, two in the UK, one in Australia and one in Ireland. The earlier HyperFund was launched in both Chinese and English.

Guardian Australia has revealed that throughout 2021 and 2022, promoters appeared to target countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. There are also anecdotal reports that it was popular with the African American community in the US. Warnings were issued in Germany, Quebec, New Zealand, Hungary, Italy, the UK, India, Nepal, Bermuda and even the Channel island of Guernsey, revealing the extent of its reach.

Legal action is now under way in the UK, with claims being made against the banks for HyperVerse losses. The US is so far the only jurisdiction to lay charges against anyone involved in the scheme.

For people caught on the wrong side of the HyperVerse collapse, more than money has been lost.

There have been reports of members taking their own life, depression and stress-induced heart attacks. Guardian Australia has spoken to members who lost their life savings, and at least two investors who lost their homes.

The schemes have been a wrecking ball, destroying relationships and trust for those who recruited friends and family into the scheme.

Before the HyperVerse collapse, in February 2021, Burton posted pictures on social media of himself with Xu in Dubai, calling him a “multi billionaire” and an “amazing human”. At a dinner with Burton and other senior promoters, Xu promised “to change the world together”.

“We are trying to revolutionise the entire financial system,” he said.

“If we come together and join the same platform, and we can have the same idea and then we can have the same consensus, and we keep recruiting our army, and one day if our army reaches one billion people, then the whole world belongs to us.

“That is our vision.”

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Astonishing returns, cult overtones and a ‘perfect virtual world’. How the scheme caught fire online

Astonishing returns, cult overtones and a ‘perfect virtual world’. How the HyperVerse scheme caught fire online

Bizarre videos promoted the alleged Ponzi scheme and senior promoters lived the high life, but for thousands around the world the reality was a huge financial loss

“Can you imagine,” the presenter asks, “owning your own planet?”

“Imagine redesigning a desert planet and turning it into an oasis where human habitat can thrive and blossom.

“Can you imagine that? Only in the universe, the Hyper universe, that is.”

It is December 2021 and people have tuned in to a “spectacular online event” to learn about the chance to invest in something called HyperVerse, a project its promoters claim will rival Facebook’s multi-billion dollar metaverse.

The MC – a woman named Caelee – stands on an illuminated blue stage with a moonscape in the background.

“This is the dawn of the next new beginning of the metaverse with infinite possibilities,” she says.

Members are offered a “trio of opportunities” including blockchain education, daily rewards and the opportunity to trade new products in a “complete virtual world”.

The chief executive of HyperVerse, Steven Reece Lewis, encourages potential investors to become early backers of the movement into the metaverse, while senior community members extol the benefits of this “beautiful vehicle” that could “totally transform your life forever”.

The chairman of the HyperTech group, Sam Lee, speaks, as does HyperTech’s founder, Ryan Xu.

Lee says HyperVerse will allow people “to live a more comfortable and worry-free life”, while Xu promises a “perfect virtual world” unlocked by the project’s unique membership model.

The launch comes amid a whirlwind of promotion.

Messages of support are posted online from the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and the US actor Chuck Norris as the Hyper project gathers momentum.

For potential investors, the project offers astonishing returns.

Memberships start at US$300 and earn daily returns of a minimum of 0.5%, with a tripling of investment earned in 600 days. To take advantage of this “chance of a lifetime”, people are encouraged to build the Hyper community, to make a “better world for average people” and earn more in the process.

But as it turned out the event, and all within it, was a mirage.

Steven Reece Lewis was a paid actor.

The HyperVerse never existed.

Two years later, the collapsed project has been named in US court documents as an alleged “pyramid and Ponzi scheme” that bilked investors worldwide of a “staggering” US$1.89bn (A$2.89bn).

There is no suggestion Wozniak, Norris or Stephen Harrison, the actor who appeared as Reece Lewis, knew the details of the scheme.

‘Materially false and fraudulent pretenses’

In 2022, the community that had been assiduously built up during the pandemic began to fracture, as thousands of members suddenly reported losing access to their funds.

“SORT OUT THE WITHDRAW PROBLEMS!!” one member wrote to the HyperVerse Twitter account.

To try to maintain the faith of the Hyper community, HyperTech launched a new project called HyperNation. This was an even more bizarre offering promoted by a hooded man wearing a gold mask and gloves promising members a universal basic income and a chance to be “liberated and free”. Some senior promoters and many members, alarmed at the change of direction, jumped ship.

But investors worried about recovering their funds were strung along to the next iteration of the scheme, and many followed instructions to put in more funds to guarantee the return of their “1x” – the initial investment.

In January, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lodged a claim in the district court of Maryland naming Lee as one of the alleged co-founders of the HyperNation, HyperVerse and HyperFund schemes. (HyperFund was renamed HyperVerse at the December 2021 launch.)

Brenda Chunga, a senior US promoter otherwise known as Bitcoin Beautée, was also charged.

Xu has not been charged and is not named in the US proceedings.

The claim alleges that the HyperTech group ran a “global, crypto asset-related, multi-level marketing pyramid and Ponzi scheme” which had “no real source of revenue other than funds received from investors”. It alleged that without legitimate revenue sources, “investor withdrawals were paid with new investor deposits”.

The court documents relate to the various Hyper schemes running from about June 2020 to November 2022.

Separately, Lee also faces the criminal charge of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud.

Lee and his co-conspirators stand accused of allegedly “inducing investors to invest … through materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises”.

Lee has claimed that at its peak the HyperVerse community numbered 2 million people.

Lee has said he wanted to increase that to a billion people within three years, while Xu said the HyperTech group had plans to “build an army”.

Lee moved to Dubai in late 2021 but, far from being in hiding, the former frontman of the Hyper schemes has been at pains to present himself as the community’s saviour. Xu’s whereabouts are unknown.

In early 2023, Lee claimed in online zoom meetings with investors he had been “caught off guard” by people’s inability to withdraw funds in the various HyperTech group schemes, and he now wanted to help find a solution.

“I thought there was plenty of money to go around but that, unfortunately, for whatever reason, that did not reach membership,” Lee said.

“I’m here because something went wrong and … just saying it’s wrong is an understatement, it’s gone terribly wrong, but you know I’m here to face the music, I’m here to deal with this.”

The loquacious Australian, who claims to be a “private” person, has fronted countless Zoom meetings amid the fallout, blaming a mystery “corporate” team for the scheme’s failures.

When asked to explain why and how things went wrong, Lee says he has signed non-disclosure agreements preventing him from telling the full story. He has denied the scheme was a scam, and has declined to answer questions from Guardian Australia.

Xu could not be contacted for comment.

Cult-like following

Lee appears to command an almost cult-like following among his supporters.

“Sam, you just put it all on your shoulders, and I want you to know … we all appreciate it, but you don’t have to just have it on your own shoulders,” one senior Australian promoter told Lee in a meeting last year.

In another meeting, a supporter led an 11-minute prayer for Lee, asking God for help “to save this platform”.

Lee appears to cultivate his following carefully. He gives almost sermon-like lectures on blockchain technology and his money-making philosophy, and invites people to visit him in Dubai. He promises to share information not available to others with those prepared to meet him in person. Community meetings emphasise the importance of staying “positive”, and it was not uncommon for members – including those who have lost money – to profess their love to Lee and commitment to their “journey”.

Meetings talked about the Hyper “family”, and when members were unable to withdraw funds, they were asked to keep “faith”.

In an apparent bid to relaunch HyperVerse in mid 2023 – as a new scheme called Hyper Ascension that never eventuated – Lee said he wanted people to join him to “come together and heal”.

“We will turn defeat into victory. And through victory we will bring peace and prosperity to our community.”

Lee is also a member of a Telegram group called “High Tea with Sam” in which he records himself drinking tea or coffee in near-daily updates to a core group of his supporters.

One of Lee’s later projects called We Are All Satoshi offered potential investors a “selfie with Sam Lee” if they bought a package worth US$25,000 or above.

Lee has been linked to a series of investment schemes since the Hyper collapse, including StableDao, Vidilook and VEND. He appeared in a video promoting VEND just last month, within days of being charged in the US.

Lee has claimed he was involved only in the technology side of HyperVerse, but for investors he was always front and centre.

“Community leaders have always projected you as the man with the Midas touch,” one Nepalese investor told Lee in 2023. “HyperTech, HyperVerse, HyperFund, whatever, it’s Sam Lee, it’s Sam Lee, it’s Sam Lee, that is all we have been told day in, day out.”

Hyper promotional material encouraged due diligence and emphasised the importance of Xu and Lee’s business backgrounds and the success of their “multi-billion dollar group of companies” – referring to Blockchain Global, H Cash and Collinstar Capital, which made up the Hyper Tech group.

These companies were Australian.

The ‘crown prince of Bitcoin’ and ‘the Martian’

It was 2014 when Lee and Xu first met at a blockchain event in Melbourne.

Xu, a Chinese national, had moved to the city to be with his girlfriend and claimed he had a lot of spare time on his hands.

Along with fellow blockchain enthusiast Allan Guo, Lee and Xu established the Bitcoin Group, which they hoped would be the first publicly listed bitcoin company in the world.

Speaking in a later blockchain documentary about the listing plan (which ultimately failed), Xu explained. “So many people said we were liars, [said] we were doing pyramid schemes. What I wanted to prove was that if we could … get recognised by mainstream regulators then we should be able to prove to everyone that this industry is a very normal one.”

Lee, just 26 at the time, was feted as the “crown prince of Bitcoin”, and became the poster boy for blockchain technology.

In a promotional video for the Bitcoin Group, a young Lee talked about his “girlfriend”.

“She has never betrayed me, and my wife loves her very much,” he says, smiling, to the camera. “We all know who I’m talking about – it’s Bitcoin!”

Xu, who claims to be one of China’s “four bitcoin kings”, gives himself the nickname “the Martian”.

“I feel like I don’t belong on this Earth,” he explains.

Separately to Bitcoin Group, which was renamed Blockchain Global in 2016, Xu and Lee began their first Hyper project together, headlining a launch event in Hong Kong in 2019 for HyperCapital.

This appears to have laid the foundations for the later Hyper schemes, offering a similar membership model, and high rates of returns.

From as early as 2021, regulators around the world were issuing warnings about HyperFund and later, HyperVerse, but the schemes ran unchecked in Australia, where the companies allegedly behind them were based.

By 2021, just as HyperFund was taking off around the world, Blockchain Global collapsed. It owes creditors $58m, and its directors, including Lee, Xu and Guo, have been referred to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic) for alleged potential breaches of the Corporation Act.

Guo is not believed to be involved in the HyperVerse scheme and is not named in the US proceedings. He has not responded to questions from Guardian Australia.

After Guardian Australia’s investigation into HyperVerse, Asic announced last month that it would assess the liquidator’s report, filed in late 2023.

Where is the money?

In early 2022, as investors began reporting that they could not withdraw funds from HyperVerse, the senior US promoter Rodney Burton was shopping for a new Rolls-Royce. He ended up buying two on the same day.

The 54-year-old from Miami, known as Bitcoin Rodney, wasn’t afraid of flaunting his wealth. On Instagram, Burton would post about opulent shopping trips in Dubai where he splurged on designer clothes, drank $3,000 bottles of champagne and ate steak enrobed with 24-carat gold. He claims to have bought a diamond-encrusted Audemars Piguet watch worth $1.4m.

In 2021, he hosted a series of cryptocurrency promotional events, including hiring the $40m Seafair megayacht in Florida South for a $3,500-a-head party featuring the rapper Rick Ross.

Court documents filed against Burton allege he was one of those at the top of the HyperVerse pyramid in the US. Investigators have pinpointed about US$8m he allegedly received from investors through the scheme.

Brenda Chunga, who court documents say was “arguably the face” of HyperVerse’s presence in the US, is alleged by the SEC to have personally received $3.7m from investors.

In an interview in mid-2021, however, Chunga was credited with bringing $640m into the Hyper scheme. “Brenda is the key reason why the United States is on the map,” a fellow senior promoter said.

“She is an exceptional leader … loved by the community, loved by her team.”

If the losses to HyperVerse run to US$1.89bn, as alleged in the court documents, then the millions allegedly pocketed by Chunga and Burton are pocket change.

Crypto tracing undertaken by the law firm Wealth Recovery Solicitors has followed funds lost to HyperVerse to the collapsed HOO exchange, but beyond this, it is unclear where, and to whom, the money has flowed.

The SEC complaint against Lee says the Hyper schemes ran globally, but it is uncertain which countries have been most affected. HyperVerse initially appointed six senior leaders as its authorised presenters, including two in the US, two in the UK, one in Australia and one in Ireland. The earlier HyperFund was launched in both Chinese and English.

Guardian Australia has revealed that throughout 2021 and 2022, promoters appeared to target countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. There are also anecdotal reports that it was popular with the African American community in the US. Warnings were issued in Germany, Quebec, New Zealand, Hungary, Italy, the UK, India, Nepal, Bermuda and even the Channel island of Guernsey, revealing the extent of its reach.

Legal action is now under way in the UK, with claims being made against the banks for HyperVerse losses. The US is so far the only jurisdiction to lay charges against anyone involved in the scheme.

For people caught on the wrong side of the HyperVerse collapse, more than money has been lost.

There have been reports of members taking their own life, depression and stress-induced heart attacks. Guardian Australia has spoken to members who lost their life savings, and at least two investors who lost their homes.

The schemes have been a wrecking ball, destroying relationships and trust for those who recruited friends and family into the scheme.

Before the HyperVerse collapse, in February 2021, Burton posted pictures on social media of himself with Xu in Dubai, calling him a “multi billionaire” and an “amazing human”. At a dinner with Burton and other senior promoters, Xu promised “to change the world together”.

“We are trying to revolutionise the entire financial system,” he said.

“If we come together and join the same platform, and we can have the same idea and then we can have the same consensus, and we keep recruiting our army, and one day if our army reaches one billion people, then the whole world belongs to us.

“That is our vision.”

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy pleads for more arms as frontline city falls

Volodymyr Zelenskiy pleads for more arms as frontline Ukrainian city falls

Retreat from Avdiivka deals military blow and hands initiative to Putin as war’s second anniversary looms

Volodymyr Zelenskiy issued a desperate plea for fresh arms on Saturday as his army commanders announced that Ukrainian troops were pulling out of the key eastern city of Avdiivka, handing Moscow its first major military victory since last May, just days before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s leader told the Munich Security Conference that the slowing of weapons supplies was having a direct impact on the frontline and was forcing Ukraine to cede territory.

“Keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” he said.

The retreat from Avdiivka hands the initiative in the conflict to Vladimir Putin, a month before rubber-stamp elections that will hand him another six years in office, and a day after the death of the leading Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Referring to the US Congress’s decision to call a two-week recess instead of voting on a $60bn military aid package, Zelenskiy warned that “dictators don’t go on vacation”.

“Hatred knows no pause,” he said. “Enemy artillery is not silent due to procedural troubles. Warriors opposing the aggressor need sufficient strength.”

Ukraine’s military announced in the early hours of Saturday that it was withdrawing forces from Avdiivka, a decision that has been regarded as inevitable for some time as Russian forces cut off the industrial city on three sides. “I decided to withdraw our units from the town and move to defence from more favourable lines in order to avoid encirclement and preserve the lives and health of servicemen,” said the newly appointed army chief Oleksandr Syrskyi in a statement.

Soldiers had raised concerns that Avdiivka could be “another Bakhmut” – the city that Ukraine defended fiercely last spring, but which ultimately fell after heavy losses.

Soldiers involved in the retreat painted a chaotic picture of risky and terrifying withdrawal, in which they were sometimes forced to leave wounded behind. A top army commander wrote on the messaging service Telegram that “a certain number of Ukrainian servicemen” were taken prisoner during the retreat.

Viktor Biliak, a soldier with the 110th Brigade, described earlier in the week how he and others had left a garrison in the south of Avdiivka. “There was zero visibility outside,” he wrote on Instagram. “It was just plain survival. A kilometre across a field. A group of blind cats led by a drone. Enemy artillery. The road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”

Fewer than 1,000 civilians are left in the town, which was once home to 30,000 people and a sprawling coke plant. Close to the major city of Donetsk, which has been occupied since 2014, it has long been a fortified outpost, and has been the scene of intense fighting since October.

Ukrainian forces are under pressure along the length of the frontline as the anniversary approaches on 24 February, and in Munich, the mood at the conference was darkened by Zelenskiy’s sombre warning that Ukraine will lose without more long-range weapons, drones and air support.

The US Senate has approved a bill that allocates $60bn in new aid for the Ukrainian military. But it has been held up in the House of Representatives, which last week announced a sudden two-week recess. At a joint press conference with Zelenskiy, the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, said that Washington “must be unwavering” and that “we cannot play political games”.

Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said at a side meeting that everything depended on when Ukraine received further aid. “I am optimistic but the timing is critical,” he said. He was dubious that European aid, without sufficient US support, would be enough to prevent Ukraine ceding further territory.

Among the politicians present, there was frustration not just with US isolationists, but with Europe’s failure to turn its promises of extra ammunition into a reality. The Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said she did not understand why countries such as Germany and France that did have extra ammunition were not sending it to the frontline now. “The sense of urgency is simply not clear enough in our discussions,” she said. “We need to speed up and scale up.”

Addressing Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison, Zelenskiy said Putin was responsible. “Putin kills whoever he wants, be it an opposition leader or anyone who seems like a target to him,” he said.

On Friday, the Munich conference was rocked when Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, addressed the conference hours after reports of his death broke.

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, said investigators in the city of Salekhard had refused to release Navalny’s body to his mother, who had arrived there on Saturday morning.

Georgy Alburov, another ally, said that authorities wanted to prevent an independent autopsy by delaying the release of Navalny’s body.

Prison authorities claim Navalny “fell unconscious” during a walk at the IK-3 prison in the Yamalo-Nenets region where he was serving a 19-year sentence widely seen as politically motivated.

OVD-Info, a Russian NGO that monitors law enforcement, said that at least 359 people in 32 cities had been detained at vigils held in support of Navalny across Russia. Many had laid carnations at makeshift memorials under the eye of riot police.

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Australia news: PM to spruik stage-three tax cuts at country Labor conference; ex-Cyclone Lincoln prompts Top End weather warnings

Regional Australians will overwhelmingly benefit from stage-three tax cuts, with more than eight in 10 bush residents better off under the federal government’s revamped plan, Labor modelling shows.

Cuts will flow to 13.6 million taxpayers including 86% of the workforce beyond the nation’s major centres, Anthony Albanese will tell Country Labor conference delegates at Nowra on the NSW south coast on Sunday.

Some 960,000 taxpayers across regional and rural areas of the state would come out financially in front of where they would have been had Labor not tweaked the stage-three package, the prime minister will say.

Our tax cuts are aimed squarely at regional Australia.

The prime minister is expected to repeat his claim that the opposition’s gut reaction had been to reject the changed stage-three cuts and promise to roll them back.

AAP

Australian politicians declare their freebies after a busy summer

Concerts, horse races and ballet: Australian politicians declare their freebies after a busy summer

Sporting codes, gambling and liquor giants among benefactors as MPs and senators update parliamentary register of interests

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Federal politicians have enjoyed a busy summer thanks to the generosity of large companies, sporting organisations and alcohol brands, receiving dozens of free tickets to cricket and tennis matches, horse races and concerts.

Recent disclosures on the parliament’s register of interests reveal Anthony Albanese, Peter Dutton, Richard Marles, Jim Chalmers, Sussan Ley and Bridget McKenzie were among dozens of MPs to have accepted gifts of free passes through the holidays. Cricket Australia and Tennis Australia were the major benefactors of tickets, with the likes of Sportsbet, Westpac, Telstra, and beverage stables Diageo, Lion, Asahi and Treasury Wines also entertaining MPs, according to political disclosure forms.

Analysis of the registers of members’ and senators’ interests by Guardian Australia found at least 23 instances of federal politicians disclosing tickets to cricket matches this summer, and 24 of tennis tickets. Included in the tickets were the Big Bash cricket, the United Cup, the Brisbane International, the Australian Open and Test cricket matches.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

There were seven examples of politicians accepting passes to horse racing events, five for soccer matches and three for basketball games.

Politicians have several weeks to notify any updates to their register of interests, including the gifts or hospitality categories such tickets are disclosed under, meaning further disclosures of cricket, tennis and other tickets may still be to come.

Unsurprisingly, the major sporting bodies gave out the most tickets. Not all MPs disclosed on the register where their tickets had come from, but examples include Tennis Australia gifting Australian Open tickets to Albanese and cabinet ministers including Marles, Mark Butler, Don Farrell and Anika Wells, Liberal senators Anne Ruston and Andrew Bragg, and Labor MP Peter Khalil.

Politicians disclosing tickets from Cricket Australia to summer Test matches, where Australia played the West Indies and Pakistan, included Albanese and Dutton, government ministers Wells, Bill Shorten and Murray Watt, Liberals James Stevens and James Paterson, and Nationals politicians Anne Webster and Bridget McKenzie.

Dutton disclosed “tickets and hospitality” for both the second Test match in Melbourne and the third match in Sydney.

In addition to the cricket and tennis tickets, Albanese also disclosed tickets to the Foo Fighters concert on 22 December, from promoters Frontier Touring.

Shorten also disclosed he was the “guest of Sportsbet” at the Australian Open men’s semi-final. Victorian Labor senator Raff Ciccone disclosed two tickets from Sportsbet to the Australian Open on 26 January.

The Labor government is under pressure to enact more stringent restrictions on gambling advertising, a push championed by the late Victorian Labor MP Peta Murphy.

The resources minister, Madeleine King, disclosed two tickets to the Nutcracker from West Australian Ballet. She also disclosed that Mineral Resources, a WA-based company with interests in lithium and iron ore, gave her two tickets each to a Coldplay concert in November and the Perth Test cricket match in December.

Michelle Rowland, the communications minister, disclosed that Telstra gifted her three tickets – “for self and children” – to a production of Swan Lake on 1 December. Her register states the Transport Workers’ Union gifted her one night’s accommodation at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel on 2 December.

Guardian Australia approached both Tennis Australia and Cricket Australia for comment about the ticket gifts, including questions about whether they proactively offer tickets to politicians, or whether parliamentarians come asking for free passes.

A Tennis Australia spokesperson said the body “works year-round with a range of federal, state and territory parliaments and government departments”.

“This includes grassroots participation and schools initiatives, programs and facilities, along with major events in each state and territory which key stakeholders are routinely invited to attend,” they said.

A Cricket Australia spokesperson said that for tickets offered to stakeholders, “acceptance is at the discretion of those invited”.

“As a matter of courtesy, we offer a limited number of complimentary tickets and hospitality at games to some politicians, players’ families, entertainment and business figures, journalists, sports officials and others,” they said.

Some MPs gave more detail than others, with not all politicians noting where their tickets had come from or how many passes they were given. Khalil noted a total of seven Australian Open tickets – five on 14 January, two on 23 January – and assistant minister Tim Watts noted four tickets.

However, some politicians such as Albanese and Dutton simply declared “tickets”, without a specific number.

Diageo – a liquor stable which encompasses Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Guinness and Baileys among others – gifted Australian Open finals tickets to Labor MPs Rob Mitchell and Julian Hill, and Liberal MP Aaron Violi, according to their disclosures. Violi also disclosed that Asahi Beverages had gifted him tickets and hospitality to the opening round of the Australian Open.

Labor MP Alison Byrnes disclosed hospitality at Melbourne’s Derby Day racing event on 4 November, with “two Furphy Marquee tickets, sponsored by Lion”. The beverages company includes XXXX, Tooheys, Four Pillars and White Claw.

Byrnes also disclosed, under hospitality, her attendance at the Australian Hotels Association national board luncheon on 6 November, “sponsored by Treasury Wine Estates.”

Wells, the sports minister, unsurprisingly disclosed numerous sporting events, including passes to the Melbourne Cup courtesy of Treasury Wine Estatess. She also listed five tickets to a Brisbane Lions AFLW match, five tickets to a Brisbane Roar A-League women’s match, passes to the Brisbane International and Australian Open tennis, a round of golf at the Royal Queensland Golf Club for her and three guests, and entry to the Magic Millions race day from Racing Queensland.

Coalition senator Ross Cadell, known for detailed and colourful disclosures, wrote on the register that he and his wife had attended the chairman’s lounge at a Newcastle Jets A-League game, indulging in “magnificent half-time party pies”.

David Pocock, the independent senator for the Australian Capital Territory, disclosed several tickets to concerts in Canberra: three tickets to a performance from local rapper Genesis Owusu, gifted by the University of Canberra, and four tickets to the Spilt Milk music festival, which he said were gifted by Aria-award winning band Lime Cordiale.

Pocock also disclosed a lunch at the Hyatt Hotel with the Canberra Region Leaders Forum and dinner at an event from the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia at the hatted restaurant Courgette, both on 21 December.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg disclosed that his Christmas party, on 19 December, was “sponsored by Merivale”, the prominent Sydney nightlife firm. He also disclosed tickets to the Big Bash cricket, the Australian Open, and “tickets to Gold Coast theme parks” from Village Roadshow.

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Australian politicians declare their freebies after a busy summer

Concerts, horse races and ballet: Australian politicians declare their freebies after a busy summer

Sporting codes, gambling and liquor giants among benefactors as MPs and senators update parliamentary register of interests

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Federal politicians have enjoyed a busy summer thanks to the generosity of large companies, sporting organisations and alcohol brands, receiving dozens of free tickets to cricket and tennis matches, horse races and concerts.

Recent disclosures on the parliament’s register of interests reveal Anthony Albanese, Peter Dutton, Richard Marles, Jim Chalmers, Sussan Ley and Bridget McKenzie were among dozens of MPs to have accepted gifts of free passes through the holidays. Cricket Australia and Tennis Australia were the major benefactors of tickets, with the likes of Sportsbet, Westpac, Telstra, and beverage stables Diageo, Lion, Asahi and Treasury Wines also entertaining MPs, according to political disclosure forms.

Analysis of the registers of members’ and senators’ interests by Guardian Australia found at least 23 instances of federal politicians disclosing tickets to cricket matches this summer, and 24 of tennis tickets. Included in the tickets were the Big Bash cricket, the United Cup, the Brisbane International, the Australian Open and Test cricket matches.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

There were seven examples of politicians accepting passes to horse racing events, five for soccer matches and three for basketball games.

Politicians have several weeks to notify any updates to their register of interests, including the gifts or hospitality categories such tickets are disclosed under, meaning further disclosures of cricket, tennis and other tickets may still be to come.

Unsurprisingly, the major sporting bodies gave out the most tickets. Not all MPs disclosed on the register where their tickets had come from, but examples include Tennis Australia gifting Australian Open tickets to Albanese and cabinet ministers including Marles, Mark Butler, Don Farrell and Anika Wells, Liberal senators Anne Ruston and Andrew Bragg, and Labor MP Peter Khalil.

Politicians disclosing tickets from Cricket Australia to summer Test matches, where Australia played the West Indies and Pakistan, included Albanese and Dutton, government ministers Wells, Bill Shorten and Murray Watt, Liberals James Stevens and James Paterson, and Nationals politicians Anne Webster and Bridget McKenzie.

Dutton disclosed “tickets and hospitality” for both the second Test match in Melbourne and the third match in Sydney.

In addition to the cricket and tennis tickets, Albanese also disclosed tickets to the Foo Fighters concert on 22 December, from promoters Frontier Touring.

Shorten also disclosed he was the “guest of Sportsbet” at the Australian Open men’s semi-final. Victorian Labor senator Raff Ciccone disclosed two tickets from Sportsbet to the Australian Open on 26 January.

The Labor government is under pressure to enact more stringent restrictions on gambling advertising, a push championed by the late Victorian Labor MP Peta Murphy.

The resources minister, Madeleine King, disclosed two tickets to the Nutcracker from West Australian Ballet. She also disclosed that Mineral Resources, a WA-based company with interests in lithium and iron ore, gave her two tickets each to a Coldplay concert in November and the Perth Test cricket match in December.

Michelle Rowland, the communications minister, disclosed that Telstra gifted her three tickets – “for self and children” – to a production of Swan Lake on 1 December. Her register states the Transport Workers’ Union gifted her one night’s accommodation at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel on 2 December.

Guardian Australia approached both Tennis Australia and Cricket Australia for comment about the ticket gifts, including questions about whether they proactively offer tickets to politicians, or whether parliamentarians come asking for free passes.

A Tennis Australia spokesperson said the body “works year-round with a range of federal, state and territory parliaments and government departments”.

“This includes grassroots participation and schools initiatives, programs and facilities, along with major events in each state and territory which key stakeholders are routinely invited to attend,” they said.

A Cricket Australia spokesperson said that for tickets offered to stakeholders, “acceptance is at the discretion of those invited”.

“As a matter of courtesy, we offer a limited number of complimentary tickets and hospitality at games to some politicians, players’ families, entertainment and business figures, journalists, sports officials and others,” they said.

Some MPs gave more detail than others, with not all politicians noting where their tickets had come from or how many passes they were given. Khalil noted a total of seven Australian Open tickets – five on 14 January, two on 23 January – and assistant minister Tim Watts noted four tickets.

However, some politicians such as Albanese and Dutton simply declared “tickets”, without a specific number.

Diageo – a liquor stable which encompasses Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Guinness and Baileys among others – gifted Australian Open finals tickets to Labor MPs Rob Mitchell and Julian Hill, and Liberal MP Aaron Violi, according to their disclosures. Violi also disclosed that Asahi Beverages had gifted him tickets and hospitality to the opening round of the Australian Open.

Labor MP Alison Byrnes disclosed hospitality at Melbourne’s Derby Day racing event on 4 November, with “two Furphy Marquee tickets, sponsored by Lion”. The beverages company includes XXXX, Tooheys, Four Pillars and White Claw.

Byrnes also disclosed, under hospitality, her attendance at the Australian Hotels Association national board luncheon on 6 November, “sponsored by Treasury Wine Estates.”

Wells, the sports minister, unsurprisingly disclosed numerous sporting events, including passes to the Melbourne Cup courtesy of Treasury Wine Estatess. She also listed five tickets to a Brisbane Lions AFLW match, five tickets to a Brisbane Roar A-League women’s match, passes to the Brisbane International and Australian Open tennis, a round of golf at the Royal Queensland Golf Club for her and three guests, and entry to the Magic Millions race day from Racing Queensland.

Coalition senator Ross Cadell, known for detailed and colourful disclosures, wrote on the register that he and his wife had attended the chairman’s lounge at a Newcastle Jets A-League game, indulging in “magnificent half-time party pies”.

David Pocock, the independent senator for the Australian Capital Territory, disclosed several tickets to concerts in Canberra: three tickets to a performance from local rapper Genesis Owusu, gifted by the University of Canberra, and four tickets to the Spilt Milk music festival, which he said were gifted by Aria-award winning band Lime Cordiale.

Pocock also disclosed a lunch at the Hyatt Hotel with the Canberra Region Leaders Forum and dinner at an event from the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia at the hatted restaurant Courgette, both on 21 December.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg disclosed that his Christmas party, on 19 December, was “sponsored by Merivale”, the prominent Sydney nightlife firm. He also disclosed tickets to the Big Bash cricket, the Australian Open, and “tickets to Gold Coast theme parks” from Village Roadshow.

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Dozens trapped after Nasser hospital raid as G7 warns Israel over Rafah offensive

Dozens trapped after Nasser hospital raid as G7 warns Israel over Rafah offensive

Airstrikes continue on Gaza as diplomats at Munich Security Conference voice concerns over planned IDF operation

Israeli forces have arrested 100 people at Gaza’s largest functioning hospital amid mounting fears for patients and staff trapped inside, as airstrikes across the Palestinian territory killed dozens more people.

At least 120 patients and five medical teams were trapped without water, food and electricity in the Nasser hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

“Newborn children are at risk of dying in the next few hours,” the ministry warned on Saturday.

It added that troops had turned the hospital into a “military base” and detained “a large number” of medical staff after raiding the complex on Thursday.

It came as the bombardment of Gaza continued overnight with another 100 people killed in Israeli strikes, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP), which cited the Hamas-run health ministry.

Witnesses said explosions were heard at dawn in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where about 1.4 million displaced civilians are sheltering.

Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza since Hamas’s 7 October attacks have displaced more than 85% of the population, with many taking refuge in a makeshift encampment by the Egyptian border.

Intense fighting raged last week around the Nasser hospital – one of Gaza’s last remaining operational medical facilities.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said troops entered the hospital on Thursday, acting on what it said was “credible intelligence” that hostages seized on 7 October had been held there.

The UN criticised the raid while medical staff reported on Thursday that the hospital was hit directly by tank fire. The power was cut and the generators stopped after the raid, leading to the deaths of six patients due to a lack of oxygen, according to the health ministry.

It was feared that Dr Khaled al-Serr, a surgeon at the hospital who had continued working during the raid, was among those detained. A team of international doctors on Saturday said that they had lost touch with him 33 hours before. In his last update, al-Serr told how an ICU patient had died because of the lack of electricity.

“Even as the Israeli military invaded Nasser hospital, Khaled continued sending us updates from the ICU,” the doctors said in a statement.

The IDF said on Saturday that it was continuing to conduct “a precise and limited operation against the Hamas terrorist organisation within the Nasser hospital”.

It said it had detained 100 people suspected of “terrorist activity”. Israel’s defence minister has said that at least 20 of those held had been involved in the 7 October attack.

Israel has for weeks concentrated its military operations in Khan Younis, the home town of Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the 7 October attack in which about 1,200 people were killed and another 250 abducted.

At least 28,858 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza, according to the health ministry. More than 68,000 people have been wounded, including 11,000 who need urgent evacuation for treatment outside Gaza, it added.

It is thought 130 hostages are still in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israeli figures.

Meanwhile, G7 foreign ministers, meeting at the Munich Security Conference, expressed their “deep concern about the potentially devastating consequences of a large-scale Israeli military operation in Rafah”.

Although western leaders have been issuing statements for days either individually or bilaterally urging Israel to show constraints, this is the first time the G7 group has issued such a clear joint warning to Israel.

There are reports that Israel may not have sufficient troops to launch a full ground offensive for some weeks, but western diplomats said Israel believes it has a credible plan that can defeat Hamas in Rafah while the population sheltering in refugee camps is transferred within Gaza.

The west is insistent the loss of life will probably be unacceptable. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, relayed the message from the G7 to the Israeli president Isaac Herzog, who came to Munich with the families of hostages.

High-level negotiations to pause the war were held in Cairo last week but their outcome is unclear. The talks are focused on how many prisoners will be released proportionately for the release of each Israeli hostage. The discussions are hampered by the difficulties in maintaining contact with Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar in Gaza.

Hamas’s political bureau head, Ismail Haniyeh, said on Saturday that the Palestinian resistance would “not accept anything less than a complete cessation of Israeli aggression”.

In Munich, Blinken tried to set out the opportunities for Israel if it struck a deal. There is an “extraordinary opportunity” in the months ahead for Israel to be integrated into the Middle East as Arab countries are willing to normalise ties with the country. Blinken also highlighted the “urgent” imperative to proceed with a Palestinian state that would also ensure the security of Israel.

Earlier, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for a ceasefire and an “accelerated state of Palestine”.

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Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra to be released on parole on Sunday

Former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra to be released on parole on Sunday

Government says formerly exiled billionaire is eligible for early release six months into eight-year sentence

The former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is to be freed on parole on Sunday morning, just six months after his dramatic return to the kingdom from 15 years of self-imposed exile.

The controversial billionaire, twice elected premier and ousted in a 2006 military coup, was jailed for eight years on graft and abuse-of-power charges upon his return in August.

But his sentence was cut to one year by King Maha Vajiralongkorn within days of his return, and the government said last week the 74-year-old was eligible for early release because of his age and health.

Thailand’s prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, said Thaksin would be freed on Sunday.

The exact details of his release are not clear, but Thaksin may be subject to monitoring – possibly with an ankle tag – and restrictions on his right to travel.

A small group of supporters gathered outside Thaksin’s Bangkok house on Saturday in anticipation of his return home, Thai media reported.

The former Manchester City owner’s homecoming came on the same day his Pheu Thai party returned to government in alliance with pro-military parties, leading many to conclude that a backroom deal had been struck to cut his jail time.

The rumours grew stronger when he was transferred to a police hospital within hours of being sentenced because of his poor health. He was reportedly suffering from chest tightness and high blood pressure when he was admitted to hospital, and his family have said he underwent two operations in the following months.

The government has denied any deal and Srettha, of the Pheu Thai party, has insisted “he already served his jail time” – although it is not clear that Thaksin has spent any time in a prison cell.

The former telecoms tycoon is one of the most influential but divisive figures in modern Thai history, loved by millions of rural Thais for his populist policies in the early 2000s but long reviled by the country’s royalist and pro-military establishment.

The tussle for dominance between the establishment and Thaksin and his allies has largely defined Thai politics over the past two decades.

Police laid lese-majesty charges against him last week over comments he made in South Korea almost a decade ago, although it is not clear whether prosecutors will take the case to court.

His critics suspected him of pulling strings in the kingdom even from exile, which he spent mostly in Dubai before his return.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister for Pheu Thai in 2011, only to be ousted in a coup herself in 2014. His daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, now the party’s chief, was one of the leading faces in its campaign for last year’s general election and has been tipped as a possible future prime minister.

The election last May marked the first time in more than 20 years that a Thaksin-linked party failed to win the most seats in parliament. Pheu Thai was beaten into second place by the upstart progressive Move Forward party (MFP).

But conservative forces in the senate blocked MFP’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, from becoming prime minister, and Pheu Thai’s deal with military-linked parties then shut the newcomers out of government.

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Japan to launch world’s first wooden satellite to combat space pollution

Japan to launch world’s first wooden satellite to combat space pollution

The environmentally friendly LignaSat probe – set to orbit this summer – has been created to combat harmful aluminium particles

Japanese scientists have created one of the world’s most unusual spacecraft – a tiny satellite that is made of timber.

The LignoSat probe has been built of magnolia wood, which, in experiments carried out on the International Space Station (ISS), was found to be particularly stable and resistant to cracking. Now plans are being finalised for it to be launched on a US rocket this summer.

The timber satellite has been built by researchers at Kyoto University and the logging company Sumitomo Forestry in order to test the idea of using biodegradable materials such as wood to see if they can act as environmentally friendly alternatives to the metals from which all satellites are currently constructed.

“All the satellites which re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere burn and create tiny alumina particles, which will float in the upper atmosphere for many years,” Takao Doi, a Japanese astronaut and aerospace engineer with Kyoto University, warned recently. “Eventually, it will affect the environment of the Earth.”

To tackle the problem, Kyoto researchers set up a project to evaluate types of wood to determine how well they could withstand the rigours of space launch and lengthy flights in orbit round the Earth. The first tests were carried out in laboratories that recreated conditions in space, and wood samples were found to have suffered no measurable changes in mass or signs of decomposition or damage.

“Wood’s ability to withstand these conditions astounded us,” said Koji Murata, head of the project.

After these tests, samples were sent to the ISS, where they were subjected to exposure trials for almost a year before being brought back to Earth. Again they showed little signs of damage, a phenomenon that Murata attributed to the fact that there is no oxygen in space which could cause wood to burn, and no living creatures to cause it to rot.

Several types of wood were tested, including Japanese cherry, with wood from magnolia trees proving to be the most robust. This has now been used to build Kyoto’s wooden satellite, which will contain a number of experiments that will determine how well the spacecraft performs in orbit, said Murata.

“One of the missions of the satellite is to measure the deformation of the wooden structure in space. Wood is durable and stable in one direction but may be prone to dimensional changes and cracking in the other direction,” he told the Observer.

Murata added that a final decision had still to be made on the launch vehicle, with choices now narrowed down to a flight this summer on an Orbital Sciences Cygnus supply ship to the ISS or a similar SpaceX Dragon mission slightly later in the year. It is expected that the probe – which is the size of a coffee mug –will operate in space for at least six months before it is allowed to enter the upper atmosphere.

If the LignoSat performs well ­during its operation in orbit, then the door could be opened for the use of wood as a construction material for more satellites. It is estimated that more than 2,000 spacecraft are likely to be launched annually in coming years, and the aluminium that they are likely to deposit in the upper atmosphere as they burn up on re-entry could soon pose major environmental problems.

Recent research carried out by scientists at the University of British Columbia, Canada, revealed that aluminium from re-entering satellites could cause serious depletion of the ozone layer which protects the Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and could also affect the amount of sunlight that travels through the atmosphere and reaches the ground.

However, this should not be a problem with satellites built of wood, like LignoSat, which, when it burns up as it re-enters the atmosphere after completing its mission, will produce only a fine spray of ­biodegradable ash.

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Harrison Ford script left in London flat sells for more than £10,000

Harrison Ford’s 1976 Star Wars script sells for more than £10,000

Actor left fourth draft of screenplay for first movie in the London flat that he was renting while filming

A Star Wars script left in a London flat by Harrison Ford has been sold at an auction for £10,795.

The fourth draft of the screenplay for the first Star Wars movie, originally titled The Adventures of Luke Starkiller, had an estimated selling price of £8,000-£12,000 and was bought on Saturday by an Austrian private collector.

The script, dated 15 March 1976, was used by Ford and then left in a London flat that he was renting while he filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.

It is incomplete and unbound, with different-coloured pages indicating revisions, and includes scenes and characters that were cut from the final edit.

On page 56, Ford is introduced as the cynical hero Han Solo in the George Lucas script, according to Excalibur Auctions in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. Alongside the script, Ford left other items including shooting schedules, a call sheet and collections of notes, which sold in a bundle to a UK buyer for £4,826.

These sheets of paper included a handwritten note that appeared to refer to a meeting between Ford and the British producer Robert Watts.

Watts and Ford would go on to work on 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1983’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Ford shot to fame after starring as Solo in George Lucas’s 1977 science fiction epic. He appeared in the original movie’s sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), before reprising the role for The Force Awakens in 2015.

The Star Wars creator Lucas and the director Steven Spielberg would also cast Ford as archaeologist Indiana Jones.

The items had been tucked away for 50 years in a private home in Notting Hill, London. The owners had rented out the top two floors to Ford, and co-stars Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, and Mark Hamill, who starred as Luke Skywalker, visited him during his stay.

Excalibur Auctions’ auctioneer Jonathan Torode said: “The sale saw competitive bidding from around the globe for these never-before-seen pieces of Star Wars history.

“Although other copies of this script have come to market previously, this sale saw a new record set for a Star Walker script, which shows how a personal link to the items is so enticing to Star Wars fans.

“The personal provenance makes them totally unique. We hope they will be as treasured by their new owners as much as they were by the previous ones.”

All figures include the buyer’s premium.

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