INDEPENDENT 2024-02-23 16:34:18


Two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 2024 is a tipping point

It is often said that anniversaries are artificial landmarks with little meaning of their own, and there is truth in that. They can, nonetheless, offer a useful gauge of change. The second anniversary of what Russia then called its “special military operation” – and what Ukraine and most of the Western world now calls Russia’s “full-scale invasion” – presents a salutary reminder of where we were two years ago, one year ago, and where we are today.

Before that, though, forgive a small digression into terminology. Personally, I tend to call what happened in the early hours of 24 February 2022 simply an invasion. That is what it was: an old-fashioned invasion of one sovereign state by another. Russia’s term, “special military operation”, cast its action as something akin to a short-term punitive raid, a designation disproved many times over by the numbers of troops fielded by Russia and the fact that a war is still raging.

To speak of Russia’s “full-scale invasion”, however – as is now almost compulsory in the English-speaking world – carries a coding of its own. It is to follow the Kyiv government’s view that there was an earlier Russian invasion, in 2014, which went largely unacknowledged internationally.

Cat killer guilty of murdering man as he walked home from night out

A woman who killed a cat in a blender has been found guilty of murdering a man as he walked home from a night out in Oxford.

Scarlet Blake, 26, killed Jorge Martin Carreno, 30, in July 2021, a jury at Oxford Crown Court found on Friday. His body was found in the River Cherwell at Parsons Pleasure having drowned after receiving a blow to the back of his head and being strangled.

Mr Martin Carreno’s death came four months after Blake, who is transgender, live-streamed the killing and dissection of a cat. She admitted dissecting the animal, removing the fur and skin and placing it in a blender but blamed her former partner.

The trial heard Blake had an “extreme interest in death and in harm” and killed the family pet after watching a Netflix documentary called Don’t F*** With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer. In the programme a man, Luka Magnotta, kills kittens before filming a murder.

Livestreaming her actions with the song True Faith by New Order playing in the background, Blake could be heard saying: “Here we go my little friend. Oh boy, you smell like shit. I can’t wait to put through the blender.”

Prosecutors alleged the cat killing was relevant to the murder trial as it showed Blake has a “disturbing interest in what it would be like to harm a living creature”.

Jurors also saw videos of the defendant and her partner engaging in consensual strangulation with ligatures.

Mr Martin Carreno, a BMW worker, had been on a night out with work colleagues in Oxford city centre before he died.

CCTV shows Blake – wearing a heavy-duty coat, face mask and carrying a backpack – walking around the city centre before approaching Mr Martin Carreno, who was sat down. Inside her bag, she was carrying a “murder kit” which included a garrotte and leopard print dressing gown cord, as well as a vodka bottle.

After a short while, they went together to the secluded Parsons Pleasure area, where Blake killed him with a blow to the head, before strangling and drowning him.

Blake had said Mr Martin Carreno was alive when she left him there to walk home.

The defendant told jurors she had falsely confessed to murdering Mr Martin Carreno to her partner because Miss Bell, who lives in the US, had wanted her to kill a person after the cat incident.

Referring to the alleged confession, Blake told the jury she had seen news reports of the body being found and created a fictitious story.

“I told Ashlynn that I killed that person, I made up the details in a dramatic way,” she said. “I told her I used a garotte that I made to try and remove the person’s head but it was more difficult than I would have imagined and then I dumped the body in the river which is what they are now pulling out.”

During her evidence Blake also claimed she had a fragmented personality, which included being a cat, and meowed at the jury to show how she would interact with friends.

Jurors in the murder trial went out to consider their verdict on Thursday afternoon and came back to convict Blake 24 hours later.

In a statement issued by Thames Valley Police after the verdict on Friday, Mr Martin Carreno’s family said paid tribute to their loved one.

“The loss of Jorge has left an open wound in the heart of his family but also in all those who had the pleasure of knowing him,” they said.

“This loss feels like a traumatic, devastating blow, leaving a void impossible to fill. Going through the pain of losing a son, a brother, under such tragic and unjustified circumstances, is a trial no family should face.

“Today his absence leaves a deep wound in our hearts. His life was stolen, cutting short his projects and dreams. This tribute is a reminder of Jorge but also a call to justice. There can be no peace until justice is served.

“We ask not only for justice for him but also for protection to prevent other people, other families, from suffering the immense pain caused by such cruel and senseless murders. We extend our heartfelt thanks for the incredible support from family, friends, the police, and our lawyers during this tough time.”

Detective Superintendent Jon Capps, the senior investigating officer, said: “Today’s verdict marks the end of a long and complex investigation. I know that many will want to focus on the actions and behaviour of this defendant.

“There are several aspects of this case that have been truly disturbing to see, hear and deal with. This defendant showed calculated cruelty. The acts Blake has been convicted of are barbaric and chilling. The murder was premeditated with total disregard and distain for life.

“Thankfully crimes such as these are incredibly rare.

“I want rather to focus on Jorge and his family and pay tribute to them and the enormous dignity they have shown throughout this ordeal. They have put their trust in my team. I cannot begin to imagine the pain they feel.

“As the evidence has developed they have had to try to come to terms with this not only being a murder, but the nature and character of this defendant, something that I know has served only to compound the grief they feel.

“There can be no beginning to understanding this senseless act.”

Former Post Office boss stripped of her CBE

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has forfeited her CBE for “bringing the honours system into disrepute” following her handling of the Horizon IT scandal.

Ms Vennells was named on Friday in a list published on the Cabinet Office website as an individual whose honour had been revoked by the King.

Issuing an apology last month, Ms Vennells announced that she planned to hand back her CBE “with immediate effect” following fresh fallout over the wrongful prosecution of hundreds of subpostmasters.

The former chief executive, who ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system, was appointed a CBE in December 2018.

MPs and victims of the scandal have for years called for Ms Vennells to be stripped of the rank, which has the full title Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Her inclusion in the new year honours list came despite legal action being launched against the Post Office by 555 subpostmasters in 2017.

The Post Office said she was recognised for her work on “diversity and inclusion” as well as her “commitment to the social purpose at the heart of the business and her dedication in putting the customer first”.

Demands for her to return the honour intensified after ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office brought the widespread miscarriage of justice back into the spotlight at the turn of the year.

More than 1.2 million people signed a petition calling for her to be stripped of the CBE.

The subpostmaster injustice saw more than 700 Post Office branch managers convicted after faulty Fujitsu accounting software called Horizon made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

A public inquiry into the scandal is ongoing.

In a statement to the PA news agency last month, Ms Vennells said: “I have so far maintained my silence as I considered it inappropriate to comment publicly while the inquiry remains ongoing and before I have provided my oral evidence.

“I am, however, aware of the calls from subpostmasters and others to return my CBE.

“I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect.

“I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the subpostmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system.

“I now intend to continue to focus on assisting the inquiry and will not make any further public comment until it has concluded.”

While an individual can signal that they want to renounce their honour, the only person who can sign off on the forfeit is the monarch, following advice from the Forfeiture Committee — something King Charles has now done in Ms Vennells’s case.

Before the former Post Office boss issued her statement last month, Downing Street had made it clear that prime minister Rishi Sunak would “strongly support” a review of whether she should hold onto the honour.

Ms Vennells was chief executive of the company from 2012 to 2019, taking the helm in the same year that it split from Royal Mail as part of the latter’s privatisation.

Ms Vennells, an ordained Anglican priest in the Church of England, is due to give evidence to the Horizon inquiry in April when it resumes.

Home secretary James Cleverly said on Friday the government would not be “distracted or deterred” from providing compensation to wronged subpostmasters.

Last month Mr Sunak committed to exonerating all those caught up in the scandal in order to ensure compensation can be paid by the summer to those still waiting for payment.

Further details about the legislation ministers plan to bring forward to help reverse the injustice was announced in the Commons on Thursday.

Thousands evacuated as army to move bomb through Plymouth and detonate it at sea

Thousands of people have been evacuated in Plymouth while soldiers move an unexploded World War Two bomb through the city in a 20-minute convoy before it is detonated at sea.

A major incident was declared on Wednesday and hundreds of residents were told to leave their properties after an unexploded bomb was found in St Michael Avenue by a man helping build an extension at his daughter’s home.

Plymouth Council has now ordered around 3,000 people to evacuate ahead of soldiers transporting the unexploded 500kg bomb through the city in a military convoy on Friday, before it is detonated in the sea near Torpoint Ferry slipway.

Residents have been sent a “severe” government alert to their phones, warning them to stay away from the route of the disposal convoy between 2pm and 5pm.

A government alert also sounded in the background of a police briefing on the operation.

Superintendent Phil Williams told reporters: “As it stands we haven’t forced anyone from their homes we can only urge them to and offer them the best advice.

“There is obviously an element of risk that has been assessed by the army which has deemed [this strategy] the lowest risk.”

According to the Ministry of Defence, the ordanance found buried in the back garden is an SC500 transverse fuzed airdrop weapon.

The Luftwaffe Resource Centre describes the SC 500 as a “general demolition bomb” 80 inches in length in total, weighing in at 500kg with 220kg filling. The filling is described as “40/60 or 50/50 Amatol TNT, trialene.”

Residents affected by the cordon, with a local mechanic from Wayne’s Mobile Mechanic Ltd telling Sky News “It’s been a very scary moment for myself, my wife and three children.

“[The reaction’s] unbelievable and very scary as we live yards from the scene.”

A Plymouth council spokesman said: “In order for this to happen, we need support from residents in the area along the route.

“Anyone who lives within 300 metres of the route will need to leave their homes TODAY for about three hours. You will need to leave your home by 2pm and we anticipate you will be able to return by 5pm.

“The rest centre at the Life Centre remains open to support people who do not have anywhere to go.”

He added: “In addition, the main train line will be closed, ferries (including the Torpoint Ferry) will be suspended and buses will be diverted.

“Once the operation is complete, the police will begin to reopen the roads.

“Everyone must avoid the area during this period.

“We are very grateful for the patience of residents at this difficult time and all agencies are doing everything they can to minimise any ongoing disruption. We will aim to keep residents informed throughout the operation.”

The man who discovered the bomb told Plymouth Live he was helping prepare the groundwork in the back garden of his daughter’s property for an extension when he found it.

One resident added: “We’ve been told to leave our homes – all the residents in St Aubyn Avenue. Police are out knocking on doors telling people there’s been a bomb found. They’ve closed off the lane behind our road. Apparently it’s an old Second World War bomb.”

Plymouth City Council’s leader Tudor Evans said everyone involved in the response to the World War Two bomb’s discovery in Keyham has been “extraordinary”.

He posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the incident has brought out the “best” in Plymouth.

Mr Evans said: “Extraordinary work by our @plymouthcc staff throughout the night, supporting residents and planning for today. Public service at its very best.

“They’re invested. They feel it. They are friends and neighbours too.”

Asylum seeker boat pilot sentenced over deaths of migrants in Channel

An asylum seeker has been detained for nine years and six months for the manslaughter of fellow migrants who drowned trying to cross the English Channel.

Ibrahima Bah, who is over 18, was found guilty of killing four migrants when he piloted an “unseaworthy” boat between France and the UK on 14 December 2022.

During a retrial at Canterbury Crown Court, Bah said smugglers threatened to kill him if he did not drive the boat but the prosecution said he was not telling the truth and he owed his fellow passengers a “duty of care” as their pilot.

Jurors reached a majority verdict of 10 to two in what is believed to be the first conviction of its kind on Monday.

They also found the Senegalese national unanimously guilty of facilitating illegal entry to the UK.

Sentencing Bah on Friday, Mr Justice Johnson KC, said: “The boat was wholly inadequate, and not remotely seaworthy for a Channel crossing.

“It was a death trap, just as every boat of its type which sets of across the Channel in similar circumstances is a death trap – the fact that in many cases fatalities do not occur is not remotely reassuring.

“What happened is an utter tragedy for those who died and for their families.”

During the trial, jurors were told that the home-built, low-quality inflatable should have had no more than 20 people on board but carried at least 43 people in the English Channel that night.

While the majority of travellers paid thousands of euros to smugglers for a spot in the overcrowded vessel, prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC said it appears Bah did not pay for his journey because he piloted the dingy, therefore owing his fellow passengers a “duty of care”.

Mr Atkinson said Bah was not trained or licensed to lead the voyage and there was insufficient safety equipment such as life jackets and no flares or radio on board.

The court heard that when the boat got into trouble a number of migrants described water reaching their knees within 30 minutes of leaving the French coast.

One asylum seeker, Amrullah Ahmadzai, described to jurors how everyone on the boat was screaming and trying to call for help on their mobile phones during the journey, before being rescued by a fishing boat.

He described how the skipper tried to steer the dinghy towards the fishing vessel to help the passengers, and without him “we would have all died”.

A crew on a UK fishing boat called the Arcturus came across the sinking dinghy and tried to rescue the passengers, with help from the RNLI, air ambulance and UK Border Force.

A total of 39 survivors were brought to shore in the port of Dover.

The exact number of migrants who drowned is unknown as it appears at least one migrant’s body was not recovered, Mr Atkinson said.

Three of the people who died were known only as unknown male persons while the other man was named as Hajratullah Ahmadi.

Supporters of Bah attended the sentencing and are expected to hold a protest outside the Home Office in London on Friday evening.

Following the verdict on Monday, Captain Support UK, a solidarity platform for those accused of driving boats to Europe, said Bah’s conviction was a “violent escalation in the persecution of migrants to ‘Stop the Boats’”.

However, Illegal Immigration Minister Michael Tomlinson said on X: “Ibrahima Bah put dozens of lives in extreme danger by taking charge of a perilous and illegal small boat crossing. It is right that he has been brought to justice today.

“Once you get into a small boat, criminal gangs don’t care whether you live or die.”

How to help create a smokefree generation

“Some people can just stop and then never smoke again, but for most it’s hard,” says Tim Eves a 45-year-old father of three from West Sussex.

“It’s just getting through those initial tough few months. Once you do the benefits hugely outweigh the stress of giving it up.”

Tim was a smoker for around 12 years, but gave up with help from a local support group who introduced him to nicotine patches and gum.

“I won’t pretend it isn’t hard,” he adds. “The first few months, you have it in your head that you’d love to have just one cigarette. But now, if we happen to be in the pub it doesn’t even enter my head.”

Taking the first step to go smokefree may sound daunting, but quitting smoking offers significant health benefits – and can save you money.

Tobacco is the single most important entirely preventable cause of ill health, disability and death in this country, responsible for 80,000 deaths in the UK each year.

It causes around 1-in-4 cancer deaths in the UK and is responsible for just over 70 per cent of all lung cancer cases.

Smoking also substantially increases the risk of many major health conditions throughout people’s lives, such as strokes, diabetes, heart disease, stillbirth, dementia and asthma.

Smoking increases the chance of stillbirth by almost half and makes children twice as likely to be hospitalised for asthma from second-hand smoking.

And a typical addicted smoker spends £2,400 a year.

Jo Howarth, 52, from St Helens, Merseyside, finally kicked her addiction after 20 years of on-and-off smoking.

“I was quite anti-smoking as a young teenager, but I started when I was 16 because I wanted to fit in with the cool crowd,” she says.

“I knew it was bad for me, but it was so hard to give up. I tried cold turkey, hypnotherapy and at one point I had a staple in my ear, but I never lasted more than about six months.

“After I got married, I wanted to conceive so I cut down to one a day but the moment I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, I stopped.

“As soon as the reason outweighed the addiction, I found a reason to stop and as a hypnotherapist I know that pinpointing why you’re addicted is the key to stopping.

“I used to think that smoking calmed me down, but now I realise that’s a myth – it was just the deep breaths I was taking while I did it. Without it I’m so much healthier and I’m determined to stay smokefree for my kids.”

Smokers lose an average of 10 years life expectancy – around one year for every four smoking years.

Smokers also need care on average 10 years earlier than they would otherwise have – often while still of working age.

‘’Smoking is based on addiction and most people wish they had never taken it up,” says Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer.

“They try to stop and they cannot. Their choice has been taken away. As a doctor I have seen many people in hospital desperate to stop smoking but they cannot.”

The government is now working on creating a smokefree generation.

The new proposals give citizens more freedom. Smoking is not a choice, it is an addiction, and the large majority of smokers and ex-smokers regret ever starting in the first place.

Creating a smokefree generation will be one of the most significant public health measures in a generation, saving thousands of lives and billions of pounds for our NHS and the economy, and levelling up the UK by tackling one of the most important preventable drivers of inequality in health outcomes.

New laws will protect future generations from ever taking up smoking as well as tackling youth vaping by:

Alongside the Bill, there will be new funding to support current smokers to quit by doubling the funding of local ‘stop smoking services’ (to nearly £140 million) as well as £30m of new funding to crack down on illicit tobacco and underage sale of tobacco and vapes.

The Lindsay Hoyle fiasco highlights the need for reform in the Commons

If the Wednesday night fiasco in parliament was a shameful sight, then the Thursday hangover has been scarcely more edifying. The public, with better things to do than study Erskine May and weigh the merits of standing order 31 of the House of Commons, have witnessed how what was supposed to be a debate on the situation in Gaza – which people do care about – plunge into a procedural quagmire.

By accident, a Labour Party amendment on Gaza – that probably shouldn’t have been accepted, let alone proposed for a vote, and would never ordinarily have been passed – became the formally adopted and unanimous view of the British House of Commons on the Middle East conflict. Absurd. This was not our parliamentarians’ finest hour.

The descent of what ought to have been a serious but low-key debate on an SNP motion, with appropriate time given to a minority party, was a disgrace. It was in fact painfully reminiscent of the worst days of the parliamentary Brexit permacrisis before the 2019 general election. As Geoffrey Cox MP, then attorney general, told the chamber at that time of chaos, any voter observing their proceedings would protest in dismay or despair: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators.”

What are the threats to MPs that Sir Lindsay Hoyle is referring to?

Facing MPs to explain himself and to apologise for the chaos that resulted, the speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, elaborated on his previous references to MPs’ safety being a factor in his recent decisions. Once again visibly emotional, Sir Lindsay said that he never again wants to pick up the phone “to find a friend has been murdered”. He added: “I made a mistake – we do make mistakes, I own up to mine.”

His apparently sincere apology and expression of honourable intentions seems to have helped his case with some MPs, especially Conservatives, who’d been angry about the break with convention during the SNP’s Opposition Day debate on Gaza – the SNP now say they have no confidence in Sir Lindsay. The latest remarks by the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, set the tone for many in her own party, though, by switching blame towards Labour and Sir Keir Starmer: “We have seen into the heart of Labour’s leadership. Nothing is more important than the interests of the Labour Party. The Labour Party before principle, the Labour Party before individual rights, the Labour Party before the reputation and honour of the decent man that sits in the speaker’s chair.”

For now, the “decent man” seems secure, but what is the nature of the violent threats to MPs’ safety he referred to – and are they being allowed to influence and distort democratic debate?