The Guardian 2024-02-18 04:31:05


Australia news: Taylor Swift shows to go ahead at Sydney Olympic Park after no asbestos found; two more schools test positive

The venue for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Sydney performances has been given the green light after an earlier asbestos scare.

The New South Wales environment watchdog on Sunday confirmed mulch from around Olympic Park has undergone extensive testing before being cleared.

Environment Protection Authority chief executive Tony Chappel said:

All of our tests at Olympic Park are negative, and I can say with certainty that the harbour city is ready to welcome Taylor Swift with open arms.

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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India v England: third Test, day four – live

58th over: India 219-2 (Gill 77, Kuldeep 14) Another short ball from Hartley, who looks mentally very weary, is pulled easily for four by Gill. He is closing in on another second-innings century.

If you’re an England fan and you’re just starting to wake up, don’t.

Ex-president launches gold high top sneaker line a day after $350m court ruling

Trump launches gold high top sneaker line a day after $350m court ruling

‘Never Surrender High-Tops’ cost $399 and arrive on the market just after judge hands former US president huge penalty

Donald Trump has launched his own sneaker brand, a day after a New York judge ordered him to pay $354.9m in penalties for fraudulently overstating his net worth to dupe lenders.

“I’ve wanted to do this a long time,” the former US president said, as he unveiled what he called the first official Trump footwear at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia, a gathering that bills itself as the “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth.”

He was met with loud boos as well as cheers, Associated Press reported, adding that as he spoke, the smell of weed occasionally wafted through the room. Attendees skewed younger and more diverse than Trump’s usual rally crowds, the news wire wrote.

The shoes, shiny, gold high tops with an American flag detail on the back, are being sold as Never Surrender High-Tops for $399 on a new website that also sells Trump-branded Victory47 cologne and perfume for $99 a bottle. Trump would be the 47th president if elected again.

The website says it has no connection to Trump’s campaign, though Trump campaign officials promoted the appearance in online posts.

Trump later lashed out at Justice Arthur Engoron, who on Friday ordered him as well as his eldest sons and associates to pay over $354.9m plus pre-judgment interest after finding them guilty of intentionally committing financial fraud over the course of a decade.

Addressing supporters for the first time since the ruling, the frontrunner for the Republican White House nomination told thousands of supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan the decision was an “election interference ploy”.

He made the unsubstantiated claim that the judge was part of a “left wing” conspiracy aimed at stopping him from becoming president again, adding that “these repulsive abuses of power are not just an attack on me, they are an attack on all Americans”.

Trump also repeated his lie that his 2020 election defeat to Democratic US President Joe Biden was due to election fraud.

Engoron also banned Trump from serving as an officer or director of any New York corporation for three years. The judge said of Trump and his co-defendants: “Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological.”

New York attorney general Letitia James had accused Trump and his family businesses of overstating his net worth by as much $3.6bn a year over a decade to fool bankers into giving him better loan terms.

Trump also faces four state and federal criminal trials, including one scheduled to start in New York on 25 March, over alleged hush money payments to a porn star. That means Trump will become the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges.

Trump spoke shortly after Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination, who held an event in South Carolina.

On Saturday morning, Haley wasted no time in going after Trump after Friday’s ruling.

Haley frequently says “chaos” follows Trump, and that he can’t be an effective president or candidate because of his myriad legal problems.

“He’s going to be in court March and April. He’s going to be in court May and June. He said himself that he’s going to be spending more time in a courtroom than he is on the campaign trail,” Haley told Fox News.

Trump is close to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, and the prospect of a likely general election rematch with Biden, after recent nominating contest wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Haley, who has no clear path to the Republican nomination, has refused to quit. She is making a potential last stand in her home state of South Carolina, which holds its primary on 24 February, where she trails badly in opinion polls behind Trump.

At her rally on Saturday evening, Haley also attacked Trump for his failure to comment on the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. At his Michigan rally, Trump again failed to mention Navalny.

Russia’s prison service said that Navalny, 47, died on Friday at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony. The west, including Biden, blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for the death. Western leaders did not cite evidence.

Haley, addressing a crowd in Irmo, South Carolina, accused Trump of cozying up to Putin in the past. She also referred to a speech Trump made on 10 February, when he said he would “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any Nato member who didn’t spend enough on defense.

“Trump is siding with a thug who kills his own political opponents,” Haley said.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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Ex-president launches gold high top sneaker line a day after $350m court ruling

Trump launches gold high top sneaker line a day after $350m court ruling

‘Never Surrender High-Tops’ cost $399 and arrive on the market just after judge hands former US president huge penalty

Donald Trump has launched his own sneaker brand, a day after a New York judge ordered him to pay $354.9m in penalties for fraudulently overstating his net worth to dupe lenders.

“I’ve wanted to do this a long time,” the former US president said, as he unveiled what he called the first official Trump footwear at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia, a gathering that bills itself as the “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth.”

He was met with loud boos as well as cheers, Associated Press reported, adding that as he spoke, the smell of weed occasionally wafted through the room. Attendees skewed younger and more diverse than Trump’s usual rally crowds, the news wire wrote.

The shoes, shiny, gold high tops with an American flag detail on the back, are being sold as Never Surrender High-Tops for $399 on a new website that also sells Trump-branded Victory47 cologne and perfume for $99 a bottle. Trump would be the 47th president if elected again.

The website says it has no connection to Trump’s campaign, though Trump campaign officials promoted the appearance in online posts.

Trump later lashed out at Justice Arthur Engoron, who on Friday ordered him as well as his eldest sons and associates to pay over $354.9m plus pre-judgment interest after finding them guilty of intentionally committing financial fraud over the course of a decade.

Addressing supporters for the first time since the ruling, the frontrunner for the Republican White House nomination told thousands of supporters at a campaign rally in Michigan the decision was an “election interference ploy”.

He made the unsubstantiated claim that the judge was part of a “left wing” conspiracy aimed at stopping him from becoming president again, adding that “these repulsive abuses of power are not just an attack on me, they are an attack on all Americans”.

Trump also repeated his lie that his 2020 election defeat to Democratic US President Joe Biden was due to election fraud.

Engoron also banned Trump from serving as an officer or director of any New York corporation for three years. The judge said of Trump and his co-defendants: “Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological.”

New York attorney general Letitia James had accused Trump and his family businesses of overstating his net worth by as much $3.6bn a year over a decade to fool bankers into giving him better loan terms.

Trump also faces four state and federal criminal trials, including one scheduled to start in New York on 25 March, over alleged hush money payments to a porn star. That means Trump will become the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges.

Trump spoke shortly after Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination, who held an event in South Carolina.

On Saturday morning, Haley wasted no time in going after Trump after Friday’s ruling.

Haley frequently says “chaos” follows Trump, and that he can’t be an effective president or candidate because of his myriad legal problems.

“He’s going to be in court March and April. He’s going to be in court May and June. He said himself that he’s going to be spending more time in a courtroom than he is on the campaign trail,” Haley told Fox News.

Trump is close to clinching the Republican presidential nomination, and the prospect of a likely general election rematch with Biden, after recent nominating contest wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Haley, who has no clear path to the Republican nomination, has refused to quit. She is making a potential last stand in her home state of South Carolina, which holds its primary on 24 February, where she trails badly in opinion polls behind Trump.

At her rally on Saturday evening, Haley also attacked Trump for his failure to comment on the death of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. At his Michigan rally, Trump again failed to mention Navalny.

Russia’s prison service said that Navalny, 47, died on Friday at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony. The west, including Biden, blamed Russian president Vladimir Putin for the death. Western leaders did not cite evidence.

Haley, addressing a crowd in Irmo, South Carolina, accused Trump of cozying up to Putin in the past. She also referred to a speech Trump made on 10 February, when he said he would “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any Nato member who didn’t spend enough on defense.

“Trump is siding with a thug who kills his own political opponents,” Haley said.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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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

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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.

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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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Group taken to Nauru amid renewed political stoush over border arrivals

Second group of asylum seekers found at Indigenous campsite in remote northern WA

Group of 13 men found at Western Australia’s Pender Bay, 25km north of group found at Beagle Bay on Friday, and are believed to have arrived on same boat

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More than 40 asylum seekers have been found in a remote part of Western Australia after a second group was discovered at an Indigenous campsite.

Guardian Australia has confirmed the group of 13 asylum seekers was found at Pender Bay, about an hour after a group of 30 men were found at Beagle Bay on Friday.

Authorities believe both groups arrived on the same boat, although Pender Bay is about 25km north of where the first group was found. According to the Australian and the Sun Herald, the group includes 12 Bangladeshis and one Indian man.

On Sunday the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, told reporters in Nowra that Operation Sovereign Borders was being implemented.

“We’ll have more to say on that shortly,” he said.

The comments indicate the asylum seekers will be taken to offshore detention on Nauru for processing.

Albanese noted the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders had warned against politicising national security.

“Peter Dutton is someone who is showing, with his overblown rhetoric and with his overreach on this issue, showing that he’s not interested in outcomes or in the Australian national interest,” Albanese said.

The Australian Border Force said on Friday that it was “undertaking an operation in the north-west of Western Australia” but would not provide any more information while the operation was continuing.

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Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, said the “mission … remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013: protect Australia’s borders, combat people smuggling in our region, and importantly, prevent people from risking their lives at sea”.

“Any alternate narrative will be exploited by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat,” he said.

On Saturday Albanese said he had been “fully briefed on what’s occurred” and he was “very comfortable that the Operation Sovereign Borders has been put in place”.

“It’s the same system that operated before,” the prime minister told reporters in Newcastle.

“Our position on Operation Sovereign Borders is very clear, and people who attempt to arrive here by boat will not settle here.”

Labor has maintained the core planks of Operation Sovereign Borders, including offshore detention and turning boats back where safe to do so.

Despite Albanese warning Dutton to heed the “very clear, strong and unequivocal message” sent by Sonter, on Saturday the opposition leader continued to attack the government’s handling of asylum seekers. He claimed there was “no question” it did not support Operation Sovereign Borders.

“I know exactly how these people smugglers work,” Dutto said. “They will react to a weak prime minister and to a weak minister.

“If they see vulnerabilities, they will exploit them, and that’s exactly what has happened here.”

On Sunday the communications minister, Michelle Rowland, cautioned Dutton, noting the ABF had said “any suggestion of alternative narratives is harmful”.

The shadow defence minister, Andrew Hastie, said there had now been 303 people and “12 separate boats” that have arrived since Labor’s election in May 2022.

In October Guardian Australia revealed a group of 11 asylum seekers had been sent to Nauru after reaching Australia, just months after the last people were removed from immigration detention on the Pacific nation. It was the first transfer to Nauru in nine years.

In November a group of 12 people who arrived on the Western Australian coast were taken into ABF custody.

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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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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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How a trio of climate drivers is baking Australia’s west and leaving the east soaked

Fearsome threesome: how a trio of climate drivers is baking Australia’s west and leaving the east soaked

A rare confluence of El Niño, the Southern Annular Mode and the Indian Ocean dipole is to blame for the country’s unusually polarised weather

The Australian summer has been a tale of two extremes: the west is baking hot, while the east is awash with devastating downpours. While Western Australia’s maximum temperature so far this summer is 1.5C above the long-term 29.5C average, Perth has melted through three heatwaves and smashed February records for the most days hotter than 40C. Last month, the Pilbara town of Marble Bar sweltered through its second-longest hot spell on record, with 23 consecutive days above 43C.

In stark contrast, storms have ravaged the east coast this summer. Ex-Tropical Cyclone Jasper caused flooding across vast areas of far north Queensland before Christmas, delivering Australia’s wettest December days on record. One weather station recorded 1.9 metres of rain during five days.

And this week storms brought heavy hail and strong winds to Victoria, causing the temperature to plummet 15C and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power.

As the weather intensity has dialled up, so have the insurance claims. The Insurance Council of Australia says more than 46,000 extreme weather-related claims were lodged between 23 December and 3 January.

So, what’s causing this unusual polarisation? Scientists say it’s down to a rare combination of three climate systems hitting at once.

‘A perfect storm’

A shifting belt of westerly winds in the Southern Ocean is turning the heat dial up on WA while also filling rain gauges on the east coast, Hugh McDowell, a senior climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, says.

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean is hotter than normal and El Niño arrived in the Pacific in September.

Climate scientists are calling it “a perfect storm” that is breaking weather records across the country.

“These three things that usually happen in isolation are happening together and they are all reinforcing each other,” the BoM meteorologist Jessica Lingard says.

Australia’s climate is complicated and influenced by many drivers. The three oceans bordering Australia each have their own sets of natural oscillations in currents and wind patterns, all of which affect the nation’s rainfall and temperatures.

‘Little boy’ and his cousin Sam

One of the best-known patterns is El Niño, Spanish for “little boy”, which weakens trade winds in the Pacific.

But the boy has a southern cousin – the Southern Annular Mode (Sam) – and when it is in a positive mode, it disrupts the strong westerly winds that blow continuously around the globe, pushing them further south and away from Australia.

In the summer, this drags moist tropical air over the eastern states, fuelling intense rainfall and flash flooding.

In the west, a positive Sam causes high-pressure systems and their associated anticlockwise winds to set up camp in the Great Australian Bight. This acts like a hairdryer that blows hot desert easterlies from Australia’s interior over WA.

McDowell says while the Sam has a big effect on opposite sides of the continent, it is normally short-lived and dissipates after a couple of weeks.

“It is not normally a long-term climate driver, but this year, we have had it positive for at least two months and it has been due to a stronger-than-average polar vortex,” McDowell says.

He says El Niño conditions, which occur in the Pacific Ocean, are normally associated with a neutral or negative Sam – not positive.

El Niño weakens trade winds and sloshes warm water from the east of Australia towards South America. La Niña has the opposite effect and piles warm water around northern Australia, according to the Australian Research Council.

“The last three La Niña years we saw positive Sam at play, we saw warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures all across the east, but we have those things and we have El Niño this year, which is very unusual,” McDowell says.

“That is probably why we have seen so much rainfall across the east this summer.”

The role of the dipole

The third and final player in the trio is the Indian Ocean dipole, which features fluctuations in sea surface temperatures between the Horn of Africa and Indonesia.

Right now, McDowell says, this dipole is also in positive mode, leading to less rainfall for north-west WA.

“It is unusual that we are seeing those three things together. It is a pretty usual situation, giving a bit extra to the heat and a twist with the wet east,” McDowell says.

“Sam has had an influence on Western Australia with the drier and warmer weather … that coupled with El Niño … [and] the positive Indian Ocean dipole, has given us every single climate driver going in the direction of heat and dryness across Western Australia,” McDowell says.

‘More extremes’ with climate change

The state’s fire and emergency services commissioner, Darren Klemm, says WA has experienced a 38% rise in bushfires compared with this time last year. His personnel attended 2,706 fires so far, many in the metropolitan area.

In late November, a blaze in Wanneroo on Perth’s north-eastern outskirts destroyed 18 homes after a pine forest caught fire.

Earlier this month, BoM released its January drought summary. It found that soil moisture was very much below average for large areas of WA and in parts of the Northern Territory and South Australia.

“The extent of areas with rainfall deficiencies, including those with record-low rainfall, expanded in Western Australia, particularly in the Pilbara and Gascoyne districts, but generally eased in eastern Australia,” the summary said.

In contrast, much of Victoria and large parts of NT experienced rainfall in the highest 10% since 1900. Victoria received double its average rainfall. January records were smashed in the state’s North Central district and the NT’s Gregory district.

The WAFarmers president, John Hassell, says the state’s extreme dry has meant some farmers were not able to plant crops this year.

“That was quite devastating for a major part of the north-eastern wheatbelt … It is reflected in the total tonnages that we are delivering – we are back down to 12m tonnes from 25m last year.” The average is 16m tonnes.

Lingard says the usual climate drivers occurring at once are most likely related to climate change and will happen more as the climate warms.

“With climate change, we expect to see more extremes in weather, both good and bad. We will see more extreme hot days, more extreme dry days, we will see more extreme flooding events and stronger cyclones.”

When will this end?

McDowell says it looks like it will continue to be warm in the west.

“I’m sorry to say it, but there is a very strong signal still of above-minimum and maximum temperatures [for the west coast] all the way out to June.”

The bureau says Sam should return to neutral in the next two weeks. Long-range forecaster Masoud Edraki says the above-average east coast rainfall is not likely to continue.

“There is no clear signal for March and April that rainfall will be above or below average for most of the east coast.

“North-east Queensland and parts of the Northern Territory are likely to be drier than average from March to May,” he says.

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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.

Putin called the capture of Avdiivka “an important victory”, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.

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.

President Joe Biden said he had told Zelenskiy that he was “confident” the US Congress would renew war aid, but added that without American help Kyiv could lose further territory to Russian advances.

Failure by US lawmakers to approve the new funding would be “absurd” and “unethical,” Biden told reporters after attending church in Delaware on Saturday, adding: “I’m going to fight to get them the ammunition they need.”

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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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 explained.

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 projected 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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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 LignoSat 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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