BBC 2024-02-24 16:32:11


Navalny’s body returned to mother, spokeswoman says

The body of leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been returned to his mother, his spokesperson says.

It comes after she had reportedly been told to agree to a “secret” burial, or else he would be buried at the prison colony where he died.

In a post on X, Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh thanked everybody who had demanded the return of his body.

“The funeral is yet to take place,” she wrote.

“We don’t know whether the authorities will interfere with it being carried out in the way the family wants and as Alexei deserves.”

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, has spend the last week in the town close to the prison where he died, trying to first confirm the location of his body then demanding it be returned to her.

After signing a death certificate saying he had died of natural causes, she was then given three hours to agree to a “secret” funeral for her son.

If she didn’t agree he would be buried within the grounds of the prison where he died, Ms Yarmysh said his mother was told.

However, Lyudmila had apparently refused to negotiate with the authorities.

Earlier on Saturday, Navalny’s widow, Yulia, accused Vladimir Putin of holding her late husband’s body “hostage” and demanded its release without conditions.

She again accused the Russian president of being behind the death of her husband.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations, calling Western reaction to the death “hysterical”.

Navalny died on 16 February in a Russian prison inside the Arctic Circle.

For years he was the most high-profile critic of the Russian leader.

In August 2020, the former opposition leader was poisoned using the Novichok nerve agent by a team of would-be assassins from the Russian secret services.

Airlifted to Germany, he recovered there before returning to Russia in January 2021, where he was imprisoned.

Attempts at commemorating his death have been met by a heavy-handed response from Russian authorities, with makeshift monuments cleared and hundreds arrested.

Ukraine war latest news: ‘You can’t destroy our dreams,’ says Zelensky as war enters third year

Scotland stands “in absolute steadfast solidarity” with Ukraine, First Minister Humza Yousef has said on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

Speaking ahead of a service of remembrance at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle, where he lay a wreath and gave a reading, he added: “They are fighting for not only for their freedom, not only for their sovereignty, they are actually fighting for all of our freedoms.

“We know that Russia, that Putin, won’t necessarily stop at Ukraine.”

Dozens of Ukrainians who have settled in Edinburgh attended the service, alongside political and religious leaders.

The service ended with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem and God Save The King.

Piers Morgan and Oprah Winfrey ‘deepfaked’ for US influencer’s ads

Celebrities including Piers Morgan, Nigella Lawson and Oprah Winfrey have criticised the use of AI deepfake online adverts that gave the false impression they had endorsed a US influencer’s controversial self-help course.

The adverts promoted the so-called “Genie Script”, the centrepiece of a “manifestation” course sold for $37 (£29) a time by Wesley “Billion Dollar” Virgin.

He describes himself as a motivational coach who has 1.1 million followers on Instagram and claims to be worth $40m.

The videos, used to lure buyers to purchase the product, claim the Genie Script is a “missing” Hebrew Bible scripture of just 20 words that could – supposedly – change your life.

Its promotion blends pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and the manipulation of celebrity likenesses – all to draw in customers desperate for the chance to take control of their fate.

One advert used footage of Nigella Lawson chatting about her recipes and work as a TV chef.

“I went on vacation and met this man at a very exclusive party. His name was Wesley and he handed me this hidden Bible page that was locked away in somebody’s room,” the voice said.

But it was not that of Lawson, it was the barely indistinguishable mimicry of an AI voice generator.

Real footage is overlaid with a deepfake impersonation of the food writer’s voice, making it sound like she was attributing her success directly to Wesley Virgin’s guidance.

The AI voice suggested that the script revealed by Virgin unlocked the secret to manifestation, a practice which involves thinking about or writing down your aspirations to turn them into reality.

“He said: ‘Repeat this mantra every single day of your life… Since that moment I’ve become a multimillionaire all on my own.”

A spokesperson for Lawson branded the advertisement “fraudulent” and “of great concern”.

Another advert showed what looked like an excerpt from the Piers Morgan Uncensored TV show and employed similar techniques.

The voice described “a lost old scripture that has been used by kings to attract vast riches, miraculous healing and unparalleled love”, and it looked like the mouth had been manipulated to fit the speech.

The real Piers Morgan told the BBC the advert was “another example of a very worrying trend of public figures being misused by deepfake AI manipulators for financial gain”.

“The real victims will be members of the public who unwittingly buy these products believing the celebrity endorsements are genuine,” he said.

“Reviews” of the script appear online, where users praise Virgin and say they hope the script will help them with escaping poverty or spending more time with their children or grandchildren.

Both adverts, which appeared on YouTube, have now been taken down.

A spokesperson for YouTube said it had “long prohibited the use of manipulated media, including deepfakes and other forms of doctored content to deceive or mislead users”.

Having reviewed these videos, Prof Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of Berkeley, said they were “clearly deepfakes”.

“Of course, as the technology to create these fake audio and video improves, it will become increasingly difficult to detect these fakes. And the technology is improving at a stunning rate,” he added.

Another advert, this time featuring Oprah Winfrey, was discovered in the Ad Library for the Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram. Genuine footage had been overlaid, again with AI providing fake dialogue sounding like the US chat show queen.

“I want to give you a 20-word script… think of it like installing a new operating system into your mind that’s programmed to make you rich,” the AI Oprah says.

A spokesperson for the real Oprah told the BBC she did not have anything to do with Virgin’s product.

“We seek to protect consumers from the false association of Ms Winfrey and the misuse of AI to create such false advertising,” they said.

Meta said it took action on the adverts it found to be in violation of its policies.

When the BBC contacted Wesley Virgin he said the adverts were “the work of affiliates”, people who can earn money by helping him make sales, and that he was “in the process of banning them all”.

But videos still prominent on the 44-year-old’s YouTube channel demonstrate the huge effort he has put into mentoring an online team of volunteers hoping to share in his fortunes, therefore boosting his own bank account.

With titles such as “Make $800+ A DAY Online For FREE Copy & Pasting Links!”, Virgin urges viewers to spread the word about his products, such as the Genie Script, across social media.

Promising rapid returns and a high commission rate, he encourages potential recruits to paste a web link to the sales platform Digistore24 into multiple meditation groups, along with messages promising a “free meditation” to those who click on it.

But the link would take users to an online check-out for Virgin’s manifestation courses – after they had watched a sales pitch video with outlandish claims and an inaccurate account of theological history.

The narrative of this video centred on a supposed “missing” page from the Bible that carries a powerful prayer script. The rich and famous knew the secret script, the narration claimed, and warned that “they’re willing to put a bullet into anyone’s head who exposes them”.

Alongside the assertions was the seemingly antisemitic claim that Jewish people were disproportionately wealthy because they “use manifestation secrets” taken from an ancient 1,100-year-old “uncensored” Hebrew Bible that included the page that was “missing” from regular Bibles.

Prof Nathan McDonald, a theology academic at the University of Cambridge, said the video referred to the Codex Sassoon, a very early Hebrew Bible which recently generated attention when it was sold at auction for $38m.

“It does not have an additional page with a ’20-word script’,” he said. “Instead, alas… it has been damaged and is lacking a few pages.”

He added that the Genie Script’s promotional videos seemed to draw on “New Thought” religious belief, which has its roots in late 19th Century America and has influenced some parts of Christianity through the so-called prosperity gospel. It suggests that healing and prosperity are available to Christian believers if they have enough faith.

YouTube users who clicked on the faked Piers Morgan and Nigella Lawson adverts were directed to a similar video but this version was embellished with what appeared to be more celebrity endorsements.

Another celebrity featured without permission was the Canadian TV star and businessman, Kevin O’Leary. His spokesman said the clip of the entrepreneur had been purchased via a website that sells personalised messages from celebrities, and misused.

“Kevin will be taking the appropriate action to have it removed immediately. Kevin does not know Wesley and has no affiliation with him or any of his businesses,” he said.

The Oprah advert directed to another similar video, and then a shop for the product.

The sales platform Digistore24 also distanced itself from Virgin. It said his use of affiliate web links had violated its terms and guidelines and it would end its business relationship with him.

Wesley Virgin has not responded to further requests from the BBC to explain his business practices.

Despite being criticised by celebrities, he is far from disheartened. Recent social media posts suggest he is still actively selling the “dream”, claiming he can teach people how to become millionaires.

Six Nations: Ireland v Wales – Four-try Irish stay on course for Grand Slam – reaction

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HT 17-0

A new Indian whisky championed by a king

Godawan whisky was created as part of corporate conservation efforts for the endangered Great Indian Bustard. It’s also championed by the king of the of the Jaisalmer royal family.
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Step aside, wine pairings. It is now time for whisky pairings to take centre stage in India. And when that whisky promises to satisfy you while also helping to protect a vanishing bird, all the better.

The bird in question is the Great Indian Bustard – commonly referred to as GIB (and godawan in Hindi) – that has been marked Critically Endangered in the IUCN red list. Once commonly found in the scrublands of the dry desert state of Rajasthan in western India, this bird has been hunted for food and sport to a level of near extinction. As one of the bulkiest flying birds in the world, the GIB can grow up to 1.2m in length and weigh up to 15kg. Known for its long legs and long neck extending from a brownish body, this bird will win no beauty pageants, but was once in contention for being named India’s national bird.

[jump to recipe]

But according to recent estimates, there are barely 120 GIB left in India.

The alcoholic namesake, Godawan whisky, was created in early 2023 as part of corporate conservation efforts for the GIB. It is an artisanal single malt distilled in the town of Alwar in Rajasthan using locally grown barley and methods that require minimal water, in a nod to the arid region where it is produced. There is also a gin-like infusion of Indian botanicals that is said to add flavourful touches of raisin, fig, apricot and caramel.

Chaitanya Raj Singh, a social entrepreneur and young scion of the Jaisalmer royal family (he is the 44th titular king), is also a champion for the GIB cause and works with Godawan whisky’s parent company, Diageo, to promote conservation efforts. He says the company has been coordinating with the Indian Ministry of the Environment and Wildlife to secure grasslands – the preferred GIB habitat – to allow more space for the birds to breed and hopefully, flourish.

“This conservation initiative is a step in the right direction. And we hope that we will be able to save the bird… the way it happened for the tiger,” he said, referring to the Royal Bengal Tiger that has been brought back from the brink of extinction in India by dedicated conservation efforts.

There are barely 120 Great Indian Bustard (godawan) birds left in India (Credit: Godawan Whisky)

With its smooth texture and hint of smoke and spice, the whisky is well-suited to be enjoyed with red meat, much like red wine. Singh likes it with his signature laal maas (literally: “red meat”) canapés, his modern twist on the classic mutton curry found across Rajasthan. The dish is said to have originated in royal kitchens, so it finds a good home with Singh. Some sources say that laal maas has its beginnings in game meat such as deer and wild boar, but this is contested by many experts who claim that laal maas has always meant mutton.

“Meat, especially mutton, has been an integral part of the diet of people here in Rajasthan,” Singh explained. While the basic dish refers to meat curry made with yoghurt and spices, he adds that “every region, even every household, has a different way of making laal maas”. The variation comes both from the kind of spices used and the length of the cooking process – the slower, the better.

It is a thick and rich gravy that makes generous use of onions, garlic, ghee, yoghurt and myriad spices such as cayenne pepper, cardamom pods, cloves and bay leaves to bring out its complex flavours. But no tomatoes please (in what is considered the classic recipe) – the yoghurt works adequately to add a touch of acidity.

The recipe typically calls for copious use of local red chilli powder made from mathania, an indigenous chilli variant grown near Jodhpur, along with hotter chilli varieties – to achieve both the fiery look and taste of this red curry – but Singh likes to tone it down to suit all palates. “The whisky will also go down well when the laal maas canapés taste more mellow,” he said.

These canapés are a modern twist on the classic mutton curry found across Rajasthan (Credit: Girdhar Malhotra)

Laal Maas Canapés recipe
By Chaitanya Raj Singh

Serves 4

This rendition of laal maas is a drier version of the curry, served on top of an Indian flatbread like roti or naan, as an appetiser or finger food.

Method

Step 1
In a bowl, combine the yoghurt and a large pinch of turmeric. Add the meat. Marinate for at least 2 hours.

Step 2
Heat the ghee in a non-stick frying pan, then add the garlic and ginger paste and cook over moderate heat until the garlic turns slightly brown. Add the marinated mutton and sprinkle with salt.

Step 3
Stir in the chopped onions and chopped tomatoes and cook until the onion is lightly golden. Add the cloves, cardamom and bay leaf and cook for 10 minutes, stirring. Stir in the coriander powder, cumin and a pinch of turmeric and season with salt, then stir in the red chilli powder.

Step 4
Add enough water to cover the mutton and bring up to a simmer. Cover and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until the mutton is cooked through. Uncover and cook over low heat, stirring, until a rich sauce forms in the consistency of gravy.

Step 5
To make the canapés base, put the wheat flour in a bowl, add a pinch of salt and add enough water to form a dough. Cover with a wet cloth for 5 minutes to get a fine quality bread.

Step 6
Roll the dough into 2½cm (1in) balls and flatten to form the bases for the canapés. Heat a non-stick frying pan and cook the dough balls until golden and cooked through on both sides, flipping periodically.

Step 7
Place the mutton pieces on the top of the breads, garnish with fried garlic and fresh coriander leaves. Serve hot.

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