The Guardian 2024-03-29 16:01:25


‘I just kept paying’: Indigenous people are being exploited by businesses using Centrepay debit scheme

Many of those who sign up are from regional or remote communities, speak English as a second or third language and have limited access to clothing, household goods and services

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Lucy* is from a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory and her first language is Galpu. She’s a long-term recipient of Centrelink payments.

From 2008 to 2013 Lucy used a government service called Centrepay to make automatic deductions from her income to pay for her Telstra landline. She was in credit on her Telstra bill within two months and eventually built up a credit of more than $6,300 by 2013, when the automated payments stopped.

In April 2018 Lucy had to visit Darwin for medical treatment and signed up for a Telstra mobile plan. When she signed the contract Lucy didn’t know – and wasn’t told – she had more than $4,000 in credit on her landline account.

Nine months later she was more than $1,000 in debt on the mobile plan, and the debt was sold to a debt collector. She received a default listing on her credit file in September 2019, when her landline credit was more than $3,400.

At that point Lucy sought help from a financial counsellor. Her case with Telstra is now settled but consumer legal rights advocates say it highlights problems with the Centrepay system.

Centrepay was designed to help welfare recipients pay for essentials including rent and power bills via automatic deductions paid directly to providers. But dozens of the businesses approved to access the government system are allegedly seriously misusing it, as Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday.

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The energy giant AGL received hundreds of thousands of dollars from welfare recipients using Centrepay, long after they had ceased being customers. The company is defending a case before the federal court in which it is being sued by the industry regulator and denies it had authority to control deductions via Centrepay.

A disgraced Christian rehab facility in Perth used the system to take control of the welfare payments of hundreds of patients while subjecting them to exorcisms and gay conversion practices.

And rent-to-buy businesses are charging Aboriginal people exorbitant prices for household appliances but remain on the Centrepay register despite having been penalised, or despite being before the courts for potentially breaching consumer protections.

Telstra says Lucy was among a number of Indigenous customers whose experiences of its sales practices triggered a major review in 2019 and 2020. At the time Telstra was facing court action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which alleged the telecom’s sales tactics were in breach of consumer law.

In May 2021 Telstra was fined $50m for signing up more than 100 Indigenous Australians to mobile phone contracts they did not understand and could not afford, between January 2016 and August 2018.

Many of those who signed up for plans were, like Lucy, from regional or remote communities, spoke English as a second or third language and, because their access to clothing, household goods and services was limited, used Centrepay arrangements to meet their expenses.

Telstra says it continues to offer Centrepay to customers but has overhauled how it monitors sales and compliance, and how it assesses consumers’ capacity to service debt.

“We conduct proactive reviews of credit amounts on customer accounts and ensure a particular lens is applied to vulnerable customers, including customers using Centrepay, to pay for their services,” a Telstra spokesperson said.

“However we are often limited in terms of resolving Centrepay issues given the customer has the direct relationship with Centrelink in relation to the arrangement.”

Consumer advocates say they have been raising concerns about Centrepay for almost a decade.

Lucy’s case is one of 17 examples of Centrepay failures outlined in a letter to the Albanese government from a coalition of consumer legal rights advocates, sent in March last year and seen by Guardian Australia.

The group, led by the Financial Rights Legal Centre, said Aboriginal people were seeking food and emergency relief because they were in debt to multiple businesses, each of which had access to Centrepay to take what they were owed before the money lands in their customers’ accounts.

Other examples cited include:

  • A financial counsellor in Alice Springs said Jenny* had sought an emergency food voucher in early January 2023 and returned a week later for another. Jenny disclosed she was only receiving $200 of her jobseeker payment as a substantial amount was going towards Centrepay repayments to a clothing store and a local transport company. Jenny said the clothing company had allowed her to sign up for Centrepay at two different stores.

  • Belinda*, a Yolngu woman with a long history of homelessness and described as “extremely vulnerable”, presented to a charity for emergency relief in January 2023. Belinda’s Centrepay deductions were more than $400 a fortnight to local retail stores for items no longer in her possession.

  • Dorothy*, a 26-year-old Aboriginal woman, had just moved to Tennant Creek in December 2022 when she reached out to a financial counsellor for a food hamper for her two children. The financial counsellor worked out that Dorothy was paying hundreds of dollars in Centrepay deductions to local retailers, including a rent-to-buy scheme for home appliances and a local bus transport service, leaving her with a bank balance of zero on the day she sought relief.

  • Jessie*, who is elderly, had a Centrepay arrangement at a local clothing store. Jessie would be taken into the store by family members who would buy large amounts of clothing on her store account. She had paid in excess of $20,000 to this store over the course of three years. It was alleged that the store was not open to discussing the prospect of elder abuse or setting up procedures to stop this occurring.

Denise*, a single mother of five, tells Guardian Australia how she was encouraged to sign up to a rent-to-buy scheme for a TV.

She says she had heard a lot about Centrepay because “a lot of families went through them”, and signed a contract to pay $86 a fortnight. She didn’t receive a copy of the contract, she says. When her automated payments were interrupted in 2022, Denise says, the company “started putting threats on me”.

She didn’t know why the payments had stopped but agreed to resume paying them after the company told her it would “take her to court” if she didn’t complete the contract. Denise says she was “confused” by the arrangement and sought advice from the Indigenous consumer advocates Mob Strong Debt Help.

Mob Strong says the contract Denise signed was a Word document created by the company, not a government form. On it Denise had inadvertently ticked a box giving the company permission to “indefinitely” deduct this payment from her account using Centrepay.

Denise says she didn’t know how to complain about the company to the government. She felt the company was “bullying” her.

“I didn’t do any complaint with Centrepay,” she says. “I just continued to pay it because of the threats they kept giving me over the phone,” she said. “And at the time I was in [a remote area]. There’s no court, there’s no government place that I could go to, or a lawyer and stuff like that. So I just kept paying back.”

Denise says she is now settled in her own home and no longer needs rent-to buy schemes to obtain the things she needs. But she says family members in remote areas rely on Centrepay to rent-to-buy goods they can’t get locally, including fridges and washing machines – big items that are expensive to ship to remote communities.

Rental companies offer to add the cost of shipping to Centrepay contracts, Denise says.

“It’s much easier for older people, they don’t have to ring the bank,” she says. “Because there’s no bank up in the remote areas. That’s why they use Centrepay, it’s easier for them.”

She wants people in remote areas who use Centrepay to have better ways to settle disputes and more information about consumer rights. “I just don’t want other families to be in the situation that I was,” she says.

Mob Strong, which has supported Denise, says people think they can trust businesses that are cleared to use Centrepay.

“People believe that they are signing with a business that has the tick of approval of Centrepay,” says a Mob Strong financial counsellor, Bettina Cooper. “But with little or no affordability checks, they are often left financially overcommitted.”

Services Australia says it is reviewing the Centrepay system.

“Priority work to reform Centrepay policy is currently under way,” a Services Australia spokesperson, Hank Jongen, said in a statement. “It includes significant government, industry and customer consultation with a focus on safeguards and protections for customers to reduce financial harm.”

All businesses that use Centrepay had to comply and act in accordance with all applicable Australian laws, as well as Centrepay policy and terms, Jongen said.

“We treat customer exploitation very seriously and all instances of potential non-compliance are investigated. Potential non-compliance can be escalated to the agency directly through customer complaints or through escalation to the relevant regulatory bodies.”

*Names have been changed

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First Groovin the Moo, now Splendour: why are Australia’s music festivals falling over?

The industry is reeling as a ‘multitude of factors’ combine to hurt ticket sales – and the path forward appears uncertain

On Wednesday, after a day of fevered speculation, Splendour in the Grass announced it was cancelling this year’s festival, just a week after tickets went on sale. The long-running camping festival was set to return to the North Byron Parklands in New South Wales in July, headlined by Kylie Minogue, Future and Arcade Fire. But “unexpected events” were to blame, Splendour’s co-chief executives Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco said in their only statement. They said the festival would be “taking a year off” while conspicuously not committing to returning in 2025 (Splendour did not respond to Guardian Australia’s requests for further comment for this article).

The news was another blow to Australia’s already embattled festival scene, coming a month after the regional festival Groovin The Moo cancelled all six dates because of insufficient ticket sales. These cancellations happened during a summer in which numerous festivals faced extreme weather conditions, including Pitch and Golden Plains in Victoria and Womadelaide in South Australia. Against this backdrop, Splendour’s decision has left the industry reeling.

Before Splendour’s cancellation, I was speaking to people in the Australian festival space to ask why multi-genre festivals are failing to attract ticket buyers. The responses include: a scarcity of available and willing headline artists in the global market; a squeeze on budgets as the Australian dollar weakens; generation Z’s preference for sure-thing headline shows; and a growing trend towards festivals that offer a sense of community, not just collective experience.

But every conversation came to the same conclusion: there’s no one definitive thing that got us here.

Headline headaches

“Gone are the days when people read from top to bottom of a lineup,” says an Australian festival promoter, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “In media and on socials, it’s really the top artists driving most of the heat.”

For Splendour, one of those top artists was mired in controversy. Five people have made allegations of sexual misconduct against Arcade Fire’s frontman Win Butler (Butler has denied the allegations and no charges have been laid against him). Groovin The Moo, meanwhile, arranged its lineup alphabetically to sidestep the headliner debate.

“It’s really difficult for any festival in Australia to secure what people consider headline talent right now,” the festival promoter says. “Previously, between 60 to 70% of offers you made would confirm, and now it’s probably like 20 to 30%.”

They point to “a multitude of factors” behind this change, including artists prioritising a booming touring market in the US or simply choosing to stay home for their mental health.

“If fans are asking why a festival didn’t book a certain artist, it’s not because they somehow didn’t think of them,” the promoter adds. “If the artist makes sense stylistically, there’s no way they haven’t had an offer out at some stage.”

Punters, meanwhile, “are looking at the top two or three artists to decide if it’s something they need to see”, the promoter says. “The Groovin The Moo lineup wasn’t bad, but with Billie Eilish on top it would’ve been a totally different story.”

Money troubles

Other observers point to the ballooning operational costs for post-pandemic festivals, which makes competing for expensive headliners especially risky. (Some point to the end of the Australian government’s Rise fund, which gave festivals an injection of funds after Covid-19.) As Mitch Wilson, managing director of the Australian Festival Association, told Triple J’s Hack on Wednesday: “Australian festivals are really struggling at the moment because of the strength of the Australian dollar – it’s actually not that attractive at the moment, given where the dollar is at, for an artist to come all of this way, and travel costs are through the roof.”

Notably, Secret Sounds, the Australian company behind Splendour, is majority owned by the US giant Live Nation, which reported its biggest profits yet in 2023.

“In Australia, as elsewhere, there’s been an increasing market concentration and dominance of three major multinationals, one of which is Live Nation,” says Ben Green, a researcher at Griffith University who specialises in live music crisis and change. “You might think if anyone could keep a festival going, it’s the world’s biggest promoter. However, you can also expect a distant, multinational corporate group to be guided by the brutal facts of the financial situation in a given year, and might place that above the long-term strength of the brand and the local impact.”

While cost-of-living concerns might explain the turn away from expensive tickets, recent blockbuster tours from Taylor Swift, Blink-182, Pink and especially Fred Again (whose surprise Australia tour sold 100,000 tickets – two Splendours’ worth – in 24 hours) tell a different story.

“A major artist in a major venue is a safe bet,” Green says. “People know if they buy a ticket for Taylor Swift in a stadium, it’s actually going to go ahead at the time and date that’s been promised. Whereas it’s understandable that people may have lost confidence in outdoor events in particular.”

‘Australian artists are copping it’

This fervour around international headliners has had a profound impact on Australian artists vying for festival bookings. Julia Robinson, Aria’s head of policy and advocacy, says it’s incredibly hard at the moment for Australian artists to cut through. While overall music sales grew by 10% in 2023, only three singles in the top 100 were by Australian artists.

“Music here is valuable, but directing more of that value to Australian musicians continues to be a challenge in such a crowded market,” Robinson says. “Right now, it means the festival market – a critical part of the Australian music ecosystem – is forced to operate in effective market failure, paying increasingly high fees while contending with the same financial difficulties faced by all Australian businesses.”

Maggie Collins, the executive director of the Association of Artist Managers Australia, echoes this sentiment. “Australian artists are copping it from all angles,” she says. “Anecdotally, Australian acts who are programmed on Splendour take their entire fee and spend it on production, because it’s a platform to perform in front of thousands of people who may never have been interested in seeing them. That’s how Splendour is regarded by artists and their teams.”

While Collins hopes there’s a positive to follow this “dark turn”, for now she says “the artist management community is just a bit shocked”. “It’s like we’re on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster, but we keep falling behind.”

But both Robinson and Collins agree that reconnecting Australian fans with local artists will help, so they can start building the audiences that will make them headline-level drawcards.

A clear trend in the last few years has been a growing appetite for smaller, genre-specific festivals over the multi-genre affairs that were once a rite-of-passage for Australian festivalgoers and would reliably sell out on the basis of their broad appeal. (The most iconic festival of this class, Big Day Out, bowed out in 2014.) This year’s Groovin The Moo was set to span indie rock to old-school hip-hop, while Splendour’s 2024 lineup was ambitiously varied, including buzzy acts like Girl in Red, Omar Apollo, Turnstile and Lizzy McAlpine alongside proven locals G Flip and Tash Sultana.

Amal Naim is one of the founders of Festco, whose new festival Souled Out sold out 15,000 tickets at its first stop in Sydney. Headlined by Summer Walker, Bryson Tiller and PartyNextDoor, its lineup was laser focused on contemporary R&B.

“We target a demographic of people that have never been targeted before in this country,” Naim says. “Going to a multi-genre festival for a specific talent can be hard to justify, but our audience gets to see everyone on their Spotify playlist.” This contraction is increasingly true in the dance music world, too, with the likes of Stereosonic and Future Music Festival making way for smaller subgenre-specific events such as this weekend’s Melbourne offshoot of the Dutch house and techno festival Dekmantel.

Of course, the forces behind Splendour’s woes are not specific to Australia – as evidenced by Coachella experiencing its slowest-ever ticket sales in 10 years.

“If Coachella can’t put together a lineup that people are happy with, what chance do we have in Australia where a dollar is worth half the amount?” the festival promoter says.

Across all my conversations, it’s clear the industry at large was rooting for Splendour’s success as a bellwether for what’s to come for Australia’s festival scene. The path forward now is more uncertain than ever.

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The Israeli military said it had killed Ali Abed Akhsan Naim, deputy commander of Hezbollah’s rocket and missiles unit, in an airstrike in the area of Bazouriye in Lebanon.

More information to come …

Sydney man’s wife and three children to be evacuated from war-torn Gaza

Mohammed Almassri says after months of seeking urgent help, Dfat has told him the family will be evacuated from Rafah on Saturday or Sunday

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The Sydney father whose Australian children are living in a tent in Gaza has been told his family will be evacuated from the war-torn Palestinian enclave over the weekend.

Late on Thursday, after four months of requesting urgent help for his family, Mohammed Almassri, 43, was contacted by a Dfat case worker and told his three children and wife would be evacuated from Rafah on Saturday or Sunday, he said. His mother’s request to leave was not approved, he said.

“I am happy about my children but I am not happy about my mother because now she is alone,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I need my mum to come as well. I’m worried about her health. She’s an old lady, she’s been waiting a long time, really she’s disappointed and she’s sad about her situation now.

“We need them to be together. The children have grown up with their grandmother.”

The architectural engineer’s children, Hamza and Amani, aged seven and six, were born in Sydney and moved to Gaza in 2019. His third son, 17-month-old Waleed, was born in Gaza and granted Australian citizenship last week.

They had been living with Almassri’s Palestinian mother and his second wife – the mother of Waleed – in Khan Yunis, but their home was destroyed under Israeli bombardment and they are now based in a displaced people’s camp in the besieged southern Gaza city of Rafah.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) spokesperson would not comment on the development, citing privacy obligations around individual family circumstances.

After Hamas’s terror attacks on Israel on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, Almassri was told his Australian children were priorities for evacuation, but had been waiting for help from the Dfat since November.

Both his mother and wife hold temporary Australian visas and had not been given permission by Egyptian and Israeli authorities to cross the border at Rafah.

While Dfat last week said that it was doing all it could to ensure the children’s safe exit from Gaza, Nasser Mashni, the president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, said it was “unconscionable” the Australian government had not expedited consular support to the Australian children, and the Australian community “should feel appalled” that fellow citizens had been “left to fend for themselves”.

Graham Thom of Amnesty International in Australia acknowledged the complexity of the case, given the children’s carers are not Australian citizens.

While it was not clear how many Australians remained in Gaza, as of 21 March 217 Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families had left the enclave with the help of the government, Dfat confirmed.

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Israeli airstrike in Syria kills more than 40 people, says war monitor

Strike near Aleppo weapons depot reportedly killed Hezbollah and Syrian troops, while civilians also said to be among dead

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Israeli airstrikes on Syria’s Aleppo province have killed more than 40 people, including members of Hezbollah and a large number of Syrian soldiers in an area near the militant Lebanese organisation’s weapons depots, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

As many as 42 people were killed in what contradictory reports described as air and drone strikes in the early hours of Friday that hit missile depots for Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group in Aleppo’s southern suburb of Jibreen, near Aleppo’s international airport, and a nearby town that houses a military facility.

According to reports, at least 36 Syrian soldiers and six Hezbollah fighters were killed in the strikes, and dozens more people injured. There was no immediate statement from Israeli officials. Israel frequently launches strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria but rarely acknowledges them.

“At least 36 soldiers were killed and dozens wounded,” said the group, which has an extensive network of sources in Syria. “It is worth noting that this is the highest death toll ever among regime forces in a single Israeli attack in Syrian territory.”

Hezbollah added that Israeli strikes also targeted air-defence forces sites in al-Saferah, while explosions were heard in the Kafr Joum area, in western Aleppo.

Six Hezbollah members were among those killed in the strikes, two security sources told Reuters, who had earlier put the death toll at 38. The Syrian state news agency, Sana, said civilians were among the dead and injured.

A security source told Reuters that one of the dead was a local Hezbollah field commander whose brother had been killed in an Israeli strike on southern Lebanon in November.

Syria’s defence ministry said Israeli strikes hit several areas in the south-eastern part of Aleppo province at about 1:45am (22:45 GMT on Thursday), killing a number of civilians and military personnel. It said the airstrikes coincided with drone attacks carried out from Idlib and western rural Aleppo that the ministry described as having been conducted by “terrorist organisations” against civilians in Aleppo and its surroundings.

The Israeli military said it would “not comment on reports in the foreign media”.

Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes on targets in Syria since the civil war began there in 2011, as it seeks to cut off Hezbollah supply routes to Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah also have been trading fire across Lebanon’s southern border in parallel with the Gaza war. More than 270 Hezbollah fighters and 50 civilians, including medics and journalists, have been killed in Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon. About a dozen Israeli troops and half as many civilians have been killed in northern Israel.

The frequency of these strikes has increased since Israel’s war in Gaza began after the 7 October Hamas attacks, which resulted in about 1,200 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, and the taking of about 250 hostages. About 130 captives remain in Gaza, including 34 presumed dead. Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 32,552 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

While the Iran-backed Hezbollah is Lebanese, it has sent militants into Syria to support its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, since an uprising against his rule erupted in 2011. The uprising quickly turned into a civil war, drawing in regional and global players. Hezbollah has continued to operate in the country since.

With Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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An Israeli tank passes wild flowers near Gaza’s border. The IDF carved new roads out of farmland when it invaded. With much of Gaza’s farms, greenhouses and orchards destroyed, many are asking if the population will be able to grow food any more. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

Exclusive: Satellite analysis revealed to the Guardian shows farms devastated and nearly half of the territory’s trees razed. Alongside mounting air and water pollution, experts says Israel’s onslaught on Gaza’s ecosystems has made the area unlivable

by Kaamil Ahmed, Damien Gayle and Aseel Mousa in Gaza

In a dilapidated warehouse in Rafah, Soha Abu Diab is living with her three young daughters and more than 20 other family members. They have no running water, no fuel and are surrounded by running sewage and waste piling up.

Like the rest of Gaza’s residents, they fear the air they breathe is heavy with pollutants and that the water carries disease. Beyond the city streets lie razed orchards and olive groves, and farmland destroyed by bombs and bulldozers.

“This life is not life,” says Abu Diab, who was displaced from Gaza City. “There is pollution everywhere – in the air, in the water we bathe in, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, in the area around us.”

For her family and thousands of others, the human cost of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, launched after the Hamas attack on 7 October, is being compounded by an environmental crisis.

The full extent of the damage in Gaza has not yet been documented, but analysis of satellite imagery provided to the Guardian shows the destruction of about 38-48% of tree cover and farmland.

Olive groves and farms have been reduced to packed earth; soil and groundwater have been contaminated by munitions and toxins; the sea is choked with sewage and waste; the air polluted by smoke and particulate matter.

Researchers and environmental organisations say the destruction will have enormous effects on Gaza’s ecosystems and biodiversity. The scale and potential long-term impact of the damage have led to calls for it to be regarded as “ecocide” and investigated as a possible war crime.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says it follows international law and attempts to limit damage to agricultural areas and the environment.

“The IDF does not intentionally harm agricultural land and seeks to prevent environmental impact absent operational necessity,” it told the Guardian.

‘Only soil left’

Satellite imagery, photos and video footage from the ground show how Gaza’s farmland, orchards and olive groves have been destroyed by the war.

He Yin, an assistant professor of geography at Kent State University in the US, who studied the damage to agricultural land in Syria during the 2011 civil war, analysed satellite imagery showing that up to 48% of Gaza’s tree cover had been lost or damaged between 7 October and 21 March.

As well as direct destruction from the military onslaught, the lack of fuel has led to people in Gaza having to cut down trees wherever they can find them to burn for cooking or heating.

“It’s whole orchards gone, only soil left; you don’t see a single thing,” Yin says.

Independent satellite analysis by Forensic Architecture (FA), a London-based research group that investigates state violence, found similar results.

Before 7 October, farms and orchards covered about 170 sq km (65 sq miles), or 47% of Gaza’s total land area. By the end of February, FA estimates from satellite data that Israeli military activity had destroyed more than 65 sq km, or 38% of that land.

As well as cultivated land, more than 7,500 greenhouses formed a vital part of the territory’s agricultural infrastructure.

Almost a third have been destroyed entirely, according to FA’s analysis, ranging from up to 90% in the north of Gaza to about 40% around Khan Younis.

‘What’s left is devastation’

Samaneh Moafi, FA’s assistant director of research, describes the destruction as systematic.

Researchers used satellite imagery to document a repeated process in multiple locations, she says: after initial damage from aerial bombardment, ground troops arrived and dismantled greenhouses completely, while tractors, tanks and vehicles uprooted orchards and fields of crops.

“What’s left is devastation,” says Moafi. “An area that is no longer livable.”

The Abu Suffiyeh family’s farm. Images: Forensic Architecture/Google Earth and Planet Labs PBC

FA’s investigation examined one farm in rast Jabalia, close to Gaza’s north-east border, cultivated by the Abu Suffiyeh family for the past decade. The family has since been displaced to the south. Their farm has been destroyed and orchards uprooted entirely, replaced by military earthworks with a new road carved through it.

“There is almost nothing to recognise there,” says one member of the family. “No traces of the land we knew. They totally erased it.

“It is now the same as it was before: desert … There is no single tree there. No traces of prior life. If I was to go there, I wouldn’t be able to recognise it.”

Israel has indicated it may attempt to make some of its demolitions permanent, with some officials proposing the creation of a “buffer zone” along the boundary between Gaza and Israel, where much of the agricultural land is located.

Some demolitions have already made way for Israeli military infrastructure. The open-source investigators Bellingcat say about 1,740 hectares (4,300 acres) of land appear to have been cleared in the area south of Gaza City where a new road, referred to by Israel as Route 749, has appeared, running across the entire width of the territory.

The Israeli military says the route was a “military necessity” built to “establish an operational foothold in the area and allow the passage of forces and logistical equipment”.

An IDF spokesperson said: “Hamas often operates from within orchards, fields, and agricultural land.” They added that: “The IDF is committed to mitigating civilian and environmental harm during operational activity.”

With trees razed, even the soil that remains is threatened by heavy bombing and demolitions. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), heavy bombardment of populated areas can contaminate soil and groundwater in the long term – both through the munitions themselves and as collapsed buildings release hazardous materials such as asbestos, industrial chemicals and fuel into the surrounding air, soil and groundwater.

Greenhouses before and after the war. Images: Forensic Architecture/Planet Labs PBC

Since the beginning of the war, Israel has dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Gaza, with satellite analysis from January indicating that between 50% and 62% of all buildings had been damaged or destroyed.

As of January 2024, the UNEP estimated that bombing had left 22.9m tonnes of debris and hazardous material, with much of the rubble containing human remains.

“This is an extremely large amount of debris, especially for such a small area,” it says. “Components of the debris and rubble can contain harmful substances like asbestos, heavy metals, fire contaminants, unexploded ordnance, and hazardous chemicals.”

Piles of waste and poisoned water

The area around the warehouse that Abu Diab rents with her family is a wasteland. Sewage leaks from a bombed-out home nearby and waste has piled up, as it has everywhere near the southern town of Rafah, which now hosts much of Gaza’s population.

“The sewage and waste around the house are a major tragedy. Cats and dogs are drawn to the waste, then spread it along the streets,” she says.

The continuing conflict and siege conditions have resulted in the total collapse of Gaza’s already fragile civil infrastructure, including waste disposal, sewage treatment, fuel supplies and water management.

Wim Zwijnenburg, who investigates the impact of conflicts on the environment for the Dutch peace organisation PAX, says: “War generally collapses everything. In Gaza, it’s making people exposed to additional risks from pollution, from polluted groundwater. It’s the destruction of anything the civilian population depends on.”

Gaza’s municipality has listed the damage to infrastructure, noting that 70,000 tonnes of solid waste had accumulated since 7 October. Impromptu landfills have sprouted around the territory as the volume of uncollected rubbishmounts; Unrwa, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, which collects refuse in camps, is unable to operate. Zwijnenburg says PAX has identified at least 60 informal waste dumps in central and southern Gaza.

Ameer, a resident of Rafah, says people have become overwhelmed by pollution in the air as people use any wood or plastic to build fires, cars run on cooking oil, and from fumes left by the bombing itself.

“The smell is awful and the smoke coming from cars is unbearable – it made me sick for days,” he says. “The smell of gunpowder and these awful gases from the ongoing bombardments is doing both the people and the environment real harm.”

When Israel cut off fuel to Gaza after 7 October, the resulting power cuts meant wastewater could not be pumped to treatment plants, leading to 100,000 cubic metres of sewage a day spewing into the sea, the UNEP says.

‘An act of ecocide’

The scale and long-term impact of the destruction have led to calls for it to be investigated as a potential war crime, and to be classed as ecocide, which covers damage done to the environment by deliberate or negligent actions.

Under the Rome Statute, which governs the international criminal court, it is a war crime to intentionally launch an excessive attack knowing that it will cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment The Geneva conventions require that warring parties do not use methods of warfare that cause “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

Saeed Bagheri, a lecturer in international law at Reading University, says that while there are disagreements about how to apply these articles, there are enough grounds to investigate the damage done to Gaza’s environment already.

Loss of vegetation in Gaza between 2021 and 2024 and loss of greenhouses in 2024. Images: Forensic Architecture

Abeer al-Butmeh, the coordinator of the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, says: “The Israeli occupation has completely damaged all elements of life and all environmental elements in Gaza – they completely destroyed the agriculture and wildlife.

“What is happening is, for sure, ecocide ,” she says. “[It] is completely damaging the environment in Gaza for the long term, not only for the short term.

“Palestinian people have a strong relationship with the land – they are very connected to their land and also to the sea,” she says. “People in Gaza cannot live without fishing, without farming.

FA says: “The destruction of agricultural land and infrastructure in Gaza is a deliberate act of ecocide.

“The targeted farms and greenhouses are fundamental to local food production for a population already under a decades-long siege. The effects of this systematic agricultural destruction are exacerbated by other deliberate acts of deprivation of critical resources for Palestinian survival in Gaza.”

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The ‘bitch and fold’ hasn’t always worked so well for Labor. Will Peter Dutton play along now?

Karen Middleton

Labor thinks the Coalition will ultimately support the immigration deportation bill – and its delay is political, to create the impression of a government in chaos

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What a three days of parliament that was. New legislation through a fire hose and scorched earth politics, all at once. The government heads into seven non-sitting weeks before the mid-May federal budget, pleased with what it got done and furious at what it didn’t.

Top of the latter list is its for-now failed attempt to create a new criminal offence of resisting deportation, applicable to non-citizens and punishable by a mandatory minimum one year in jail and maybe as many as five.

Rushing a bill like that into parliament and demanding its passage within 48 hours was always going to be controversial. The government expected opposition from refugee advocates but from the opposition, it expected support. Instead it got a Senate inquiry.

The angry government assesses – probably correctly – that the Coalition will ultimately support the bill and the delay was political, to create the impression of a government in chaos. It guarantees the bill won’t be law in time for the mid-April verdict in a high court detention case that it was partly designed to insure against.

Crossbenchers who supported the deferral insist an inquiry is essential to understand the implications of such a serious bill. That is also the Coalition’s public argument. Ministers went home for Easter railing about hypocrisy and opportunism and putting national security at risk.

Labor argues that if the roles were reversed, it might push back initially but would then agree to back the bill – an approach known in the politics business as “bitch and fold”.

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

The folding occurs, so the argument goes, because Labor in opposition recognises the importance of bipartisanship in national security and would not stand in the way etc etc. The bitching is because, well, opposition, and also sometimes concern about what’s been jammed into a bill and plonked into the parliament on a tight deadline.

That tends not to be how history has recorded Labor’s motives when such situations have arisen in the past. It’s accepted wisdom that when a Labor opposition backs security legislation after protesting initially, it involves a calculation that the politics of blocking it could only be bad.

“Every single decision we take has got a political calculation,” the former Labor leader Kim Beazley says of making such decisions. He speaks with some authority on the subject.

The no-then-yes path was what Beazley chose when the then prime minister John Howard sprung legislation on the parliament in August of 2001 after the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa picked up asylum seekers in international waters and tried to deliver them to Christmas Island.

Howard addressed parliament at 2pm on 29 August 2001, revealing that Australian special forces had boarded and seized control of the Tampa after its captain ignored an order not to enter Australian waters. With Norway outraged, a diplomatic crisis quickly joined the humanitarian one already unfolding at sea.

At lightning speed, Howard had legislation drafted to make it an offence to defy such an order from the Australian government. A new offence of uncooperation. Sound familiar?

When the border protection bill was introduced just under five hours later, Beazley refused to back it. Asked this week to reflect on those decisions in light of events in Canberra, Beazley describes the meeting with Howard when he first saw the legislation.

Retrospective to 9am that morning, the bill contained language he says was so loose that any vessel, even in life-threatening situations, could have been ordered back out to sea, meaning the government “could authorise the sinking of yachts in the Sydney to Hobart”.

“I told him ‘we will not support this’,” Beazley recalls. At the time, he believed existing powers probably allowed Howard to do what he had done anyway. He accepted it was reasonable to legislate for certainty but not without due consideration, insisting the bill be fixed before receiving Labor’s support.

“What we have is not a national catastrophe, but a serious problem,” Beazley said at the time. “… We do not need to go down this particular road. We require clear minds and cool heads. Any piece of legislation that changes policy is entitled to that level of consideration.”

Two weeks later, a new bill appeared. The redraft accounted for every possible contingency because Howard feared his legislation could be struck down in court. Beazley says it addressed every one of the concerns he had raised. Labor voted for it.

With an election due, Howard did not exactly linger in gratitude. Two weeks later, terrorists crashed planes into buildings in the US and the prime minister went to the polls almost immediately, declaring “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” before romping home for a third term.

Beazley was not praised for bipartisanship but pilloried for capitulation. And that is how the story has been told – he says inaccurately – ever since.

The former Labor leader acknowledges a few parallels between the situation 23 years ago and this week’s showdown over immigration legislation. An urgent bill. Questions about necessity, timing and reach. Anger at a lack of consultation and initial refusal.

Back then, the opposition eventually said yes, but not before the government was sent back to the drawing board.

Both situations also go to what Beazley says is a series of interlinked tenets underpinning a functioning Australian democracy. While acknowledging politics is always a factor in border protection decisions, he says other considerations rank higher – or should.

“Every single decision we take has got a political calculation, but the main political calculation we take is acceptability of high levels of migration and that requires a high level of confidence that we’ve got control of the borders,” he says.

Beazley insists that justifies what Labor is doing, despite the disdain of those deriding the end-justifies-the-means argument as proof Labor in office has lost its moral compass.

As for the Coalition – having bitched, it will inevitably fold. It will hope the government wins its case before the high court because if it doesn’t, Peter Dutton and his colleagues will be blamed. And odds on, the Senate inquiry will see the government amend its detention bill and try again, because there are always mistakes when laws are made in haste.

Ah, history. It has a little something for everyone.

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The ‘bitch and fold’ hasn’t always worked so well for Labor. Will Peter Dutton play along now?

Karen Middleton

Labor thinks the Coalition will ultimately support the immigration deportation bill – and its delay is political, to create the impression of a government in chaos

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

What a three days of parliament that was. New legislation through a fire hose and scorched earth politics, all at once. The government heads into seven non-sitting weeks before the mid-May federal budget, pleased with what it got done and furious at what it didn’t.

Top of the latter list is its for-now failed attempt to create a new criminal offence of resisting deportation, applicable to non-citizens and punishable by a mandatory minimum one year in jail and maybe as many as five.

Rushing a bill like that into parliament and demanding its passage within 48 hours was always going to be controversial. The government expected opposition from refugee advocates but from the opposition, it expected support. Instead it got a Senate inquiry.

The angry government assesses – probably correctly – that the Coalition will ultimately support the bill and the delay was political, to create the impression of a government in chaos. It guarantees the bill won’t be law in time for the mid-April verdict in a high court detention case that it was partly designed to insure against.

Crossbenchers who supported the deferral insist an inquiry is essential to understand the implications of such a serious bill. That is also the Coalition’s public argument. Ministers went home for Easter railing about hypocrisy and opportunism and putting national security at risk.

Labor argues that if the roles were reversed, it might push back initially but would then agree to back the bill – an approach known in the politics business as “bitch and fold”.

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

The folding occurs, so the argument goes, because Labor in opposition recognises the importance of bipartisanship in national security and would not stand in the way etc etc. The bitching is because, well, opposition, and also sometimes concern about what’s been jammed into a bill and plonked into the parliament on a tight deadline.

That tends not to be how history has recorded Labor’s motives when such situations have arisen in the past. It’s accepted wisdom that when a Labor opposition backs security legislation after protesting initially, it involves a calculation that the politics of blocking it could only be bad.

“Every single decision we take has got a political calculation,” the former Labor leader Kim Beazley says of making such decisions. He speaks with some authority on the subject.

The no-then-yes path was what Beazley chose when the then prime minister John Howard sprung legislation on the parliament in August of 2001 after the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa picked up asylum seekers in international waters and tried to deliver them to Christmas Island.

Howard addressed parliament at 2pm on 29 August 2001, revealing that Australian special forces had boarded and seized control of the Tampa after its captain ignored an order not to enter Australian waters. With Norway outraged, a diplomatic crisis quickly joined the humanitarian one already unfolding at sea.

At lightning speed, Howard had legislation drafted to make it an offence to defy such an order from the Australian government. A new offence of uncooperation. Sound familiar?

When the border protection bill was introduced just under five hours later, Beazley refused to back it. Asked this week to reflect on those decisions in light of events in Canberra, Beazley describes the meeting with Howard when he first saw the legislation.

Retrospective to 9am that morning, the bill contained language he says was so loose that any vessel, even in life-threatening situations, could have been ordered back out to sea, meaning the government “could authorise the sinking of yachts in the Sydney to Hobart”.

“I told him ‘we will not support this’,” Beazley recalls. At the time, he believed existing powers probably allowed Howard to do what he had done anyway. He accepted it was reasonable to legislate for certainty but not without due consideration, insisting the bill be fixed before receiving Labor’s support.

“What we have is not a national catastrophe, but a serious problem,” Beazley said at the time. “… We do not need to go down this particular road. We require clear minds and cool heads. Any piece of legislation that changes policy is entitled to that level of consideration.”

Two weeks later, a new bill appeared. The redraft accounted for every possible contingency because Howard feared his legislation could be struck down in court. Beazley says it addressed every one of the concerns he had raised. Labor voted for it.

With an election due, Howard did not exactly linger in gratitude. Two weeks later, terrorists crashed planes into buildings in the US and the prime minister went to the polls almost immediately, declaring “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” before romping home for a third term.

Beazley was not praised for bipartisanship but pilloried for capitulation. And that is how the story has been told – he says inaccurately – ever since.

The former Labor leader acknowledges a few parallels between the situation 23 years ago and this week’s showdown over immigration legislation. An urgent bill. Questions about necessity, timing and reach. Anger at a lack of consultation and initial refusal.

Back then, the opposition eventually said yes, but not before the government was sent back to the drawing board.

Both situations also go to what Beazley says is a series of interlinked tenets underpinning a functioning Australian democracy. While acknowledging politics is always a factor in border protection decisions, he says other considerations rank higher – or should.

“Every single decision we take has got a political calculation, but the main political calculation we take is acceptability of high levels of migration and that requires a high level of confidence that we’ve got control of the borders,” he says.

Beazley insists that justifies what Labor is doing, despite the disdain of those deriding the end-justifies-the-means argument as proof Labor in office has lost its moral compass.

As for the Coalition – having bitched, it will inevitably fold. It will hope the government wins its case before the high court because if it doesn’t, Peter Dutton and his colleagues will be blamed. And odds on, the Senate inquiry will see the government amend its detention bill and try again, because there are always mistakes when laws are made in haste.

Ah, history. It has a little something for everyone.

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Joe Biden has joined in on calling for Russia to release Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested one year ago today.

“Today we mark a painful anniversary: one year of American journalist Evan Gershkovich’s wrongful detention in Russia,” the president said in a statement.

Here’s more:

Journalism is not a crime, and Evan went to Russia to do his job as a reporter — risking his safety to shine the light of truth on Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine. Shortly after his wholly unjust and illegal detention, he drafted a letter to his family from prison, writing: “I am not losing hope.”

As I have told Evan’s parents, I will never give up hope either. We will continue working every day to secure his release. We will continue to denounce and impose costs for Russia’s appalling attempts to use Americans as bargaining chips. And we will continue to stand strong against all those who seek to attack the press or target journalists — the pillars of free society.

To Evan, to Paul Whelan, and to all Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad: We are with you. And we will never stop working to bring you home.

Black summer fires: a veteran ecologist says Australia’s bushfire modelling is flawed. Others disagree

Lives are at risk because of the way forest litter is estimated, a researcher says. But among some colleagues that’s a controversial view

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When it comes to what we know about bushfire behaviour, big questions remain unanswered.

This week, the New South Wales state coroner, Teresa O’Sullivan, handed down a 734-page report after a two-year inquest into the black summer bushfires. She described fire prediction as an “inexact science”, and said there was a degree of uncertainty in all the existing models used to forecast what would happen as the risk worsened with the climate crisis.

One of the major controversies is over the way fuel loads for bushfires are modelled. There are markedly different views among scientists working in the area. The modelling used to estimate forest litter on the ground guides hazard reduction and firefighting plans.

The differences were highlighted when Prof Mark Adams, a veteran ecologist, published an academic paper earlier this month arguing the modelling usually relied on is fundamentally flawed. He says lives are at risk because of the way forest litter is estimated in Australia’s most populous states.

Not everyone agrees. Associate Prof Phil Zylstra, an ecologist at Curtin University, calls Adams’ position a “distraction from the real issue” and argues surface fuel loads do not drive bushfire risk.

He says the question of what drives fire has become “very emotive”, and a major area of debate.

What to make of this?

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Adams, a Swinburne University professor, believes leaf litter is crucial in understanding fire risk.

He says modelling used by the Rural Fire Service means the New South Wales agency is likely to have underestimated how much fuel had accumulated across the state’s vast forests before the catastrophic 2019-20 fire season.

NSW, Victoria and Australia’s major fire research agency use the Olson model to predict fuel accumulation and calculate fire danger ratings. Developed more than 60 years ago, the model assumes that leaf litter, twigs and bark – known as fine fuels – rapidly accumulate at first, and then fall on the ground and decompose at the same rate, reaching a “steady state” that remains unchanged unless they are burned.

Adams says this model leads to “significant underestimates of fuel” – in some cases as much as half of what is really on the ground.

“Why use a 60-year-old model, which is not used anywhere else in the world?” he says.

“Every gardener would know that twigs decompose at a much, much slower rate than leaves. To assume they all decompose at the same rate is simply non-scientific.”

Zylstra strongly disagrees. He says fire intensity is not determined by the weight of litter on the forest floor. “It’s all about the arrangement of it and the flammability of the plants themselves that are burning,” he says.

“Think of a newspaper laid flat on the ground. If you set that on fire, you can get it to burn but it won’t burn very well,” he says.

“If you take a single page from it, and just loosely crumple that page up, you’ve got a much, much lighter fuel load, but set that on fire and you’ll get a much bigger flame.”

The NSW RFS relied on the Olson model to publish a list of “comprehensive vegetation fuel loads” before the black summer bushfires of 2019-20 burnt through more than a quarter of the state’s 20m hectares of forest.

Adams says given most of these forests had not burnt for “many, many decades”, the RFS is likely to have underestimated how much fuel there was to burn.

But the RFS risk management director, Dr Simon Heemstra, defends the research. He says the Olson model “works very well” in NSW, although he acknowledges there are some “nuances” – such as variations in climate and weather – that it misses.

“There are issues with our fuel models, we’d definitely like to improve [but] the reason we use modelling is it’s just not physically possible to sample the whole landscape,” he says.

Adams recently had a paper outlining his arguments against the Olson model published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management after what he acknowledges was a “challenging” but ultimately successful peer review process. Adams and his co-author, Mathias Neumann, accuse governments, agencies, and researchers of relying on misinformation.

Some government agencies say they use this type of modelling and have faith in it as the best method available to calculate bushfire fuel loads.

A spokesperson for the Victorian environment department says there is “promising” research identifying alternatives to the Olson model but they are not yet “fit-for-purpose”.

A spokesperson for Victoria’s Country Fire Authority says it does not use the Olson model but does use “similarly shaped” modelling to determine fuel hazards “in some circumstances” – which it says it validates with field assessments.

The internationally recognised ecologist Dr Luba Volkova, from the University of Melbourne, is particularly concerned what the current approach means for estimates done by the major government-funded research agency working in this space, Natural Hazards Research Australia.

Volkova says the agency, which informs state and federal bushfire policies including hazard reduction burning, should put more work into field research rather than using models that rely on assumptions about the way fuel accumulates.

“[The] US, Europe have a huge chain of permanent sampling plots across the country – even New Zealand has it – which are measured every couple of years or every year,” she says.

The agency’s chief executive officer, Andrew Gissing, says it isn’t surprising that scientists don’t always agree on bushfire management, given its complex nature, and that all science is “built on healthy, robust debate”.

Adams says he is concerned that recent literature on fire risk and fire agency fuel predictions rely on “an unpublished and unreviewed report” and a separate 2014 paper that used the Olson model to calculate fine fuels in eucalypt forests in south-eastern Australia.

“Neither the report nor the paper provides evidence of ecosystem steady state for even a single study forest, let alone all 80 forest formations [in south-east Australia]” he writes.

But one of that paper’s authors, Ross Bradstock, refers to Adams’ recent journal article as “Mark’s story”. Bradstock says it’s wrong to suggest that conventional forest litter estimations “somehow lead to underestimation of bushfire risk”.

“It sounds really dramatic, but whether there’s underestimation or overestimation is actually unimportant,” he says. “The variation in most real world fuel data far outstrips the magnitude of any under or overestimation.”

He’s vowed to produce a “very comprehensive response” to Adams’ paper, which would also need to be accepted by a scientific journal and peer-reviewed.

“The Olson model has served us well,” Bradstock says. “Scientists do modelling to help people.”

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Crystal Mason: Texas woman sentenced to five years over voting error acquitted

Appeals court rules Mason, now 49, did not know she was ineligible when she voted in 2016 and throws out conviction

A Texas appeals court has thrown out a five-year prison sentence for Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who was sentenced for trying to cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election that was rejected.

Mason, now 49, attempted to vote in Fort Worth in 2016 even though she was ineligible because she was still on supervised release – which is like probation – for a tax felony. She has always maintained she had no idea she was ineligible and only tried to cast a ballot because her mother urged her to.

A judge convicted her in a 2018 trial that lasted just a few hours. Probation officials testified at her trial that they never told her she was ineligible. But in 2020, the court of appeals for the second appellate district, had said that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible to vote was “irrelevant” to her prosecution.

Mason’s case became well known nationally and struck a chord as an example of an egregious punishment for a voting mistake. Many saw it as a thinly veiled effort to intimidate Black voters.

In 2022, Texas’s highest criminal court told the second court of appeals it had to reconsider its ruling upholding Mason’s conviction. On Thursday, that court said there was insufficient evidence Mason knew she was ineligible to vote.

Justice Wade Birdwell wrote for the court in its Thursday ruling: “We conclude that the quantum of the evidence presented in this case is insufficient to support the conclusion that Mason actually realized that she voted knowing that she was ineligible to do so and, therefore, insufficient to support her conviction for illegal voting.”

Mason, who has remained out of prison on an appeal bond, said in a telephone interview on Thursday evening that she received the news while going through a drive-through and became emotional. “I was thrown into this fight for voting rights and will keep swinging to ensure no other citizen has to face what I’ve faced and endured for the past seven years, a political ploy where minority voting rights are under attack,” she added.

Although Mason was not particularly involved in politics before her case, she has since become much more engaged in raising awareness about voting rights. In 2022, she opened a rally for Beto O’Rourke.

A key piece of evidence in the case was testimony from the head poll worker, Mason’s neighbor, who assisted her with filling out the provisional ballot. Before submitting it, he said he went over an affidavit with her in which she had to affirm she was not serving a criminal sentence. The affidavit is poorly designed – it crams an admonition in both English and Spanish in relatively small print on one side, and requires the voter to fill out information on the other.

Mason signed the affidavit, but says she never understood that it meant she could not vote. The court on Thursday agreed there was not sufficient evidence to show she “actually realized” the affidavit meant she could not vote.

Alison Grinter Allen, one of her lawyers, said: “Crystal has gone through so much, and all of Texas owes her a great debt of gratitude. Through eight years, never once did she stop fighting, never once did she take her eyes off of the fact that this case was about every single voter in Texas.”

Despite her acquittal, the case has taken a significant toll on Mason and her family.

After Mason was arrested in 2017, she lost her job at a bank. She was also sent back to federal prison for several months for being arrested while on probation for a federal crime. During that time, she almost lost her home to foreclosure.

“Although I’ve cried for seven years straight, seven nights a week … I’ve also prayed for seven years straight, seven nights a week. Prayed that I would remain a free Black woman,” she said in a statement.

“I am overjoyed to see my faith rewarded today.”

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Crystal Mason: Texas woman sentenced to five years over voting error acquitted

Appeals court rules Mason, now 49, did not know she was ineligible when she voted in 2016 and throws out conviction

A Texas appeals court has thrown out a five-year prison sentence for Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who was sentenced for trying to cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election that was rejected.

Mason, now 49, attempted to vote in Fort Worth in 2016 even though she was ineligible because she was still on supervised release – which is like probation – for a tax felony. She has always maintained she had no idea she was ineligible and only tried to cast a ballot because her mother urged her to.

A judge convicted her in a 2018 trial that lasted just a few hours. Probation officials testified at her trial that they never told her she was ineligible. But in 2020, the court of appeals for the second appellate district, had said that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible to vote was “irrelevant” to her prosecution.

Mason’s case became well known nationally and struck a chord as an example of an egregious punishment for a voting mistake. Many saw it as a thinly veiled effort to intimidate Black voters.

In 2022, Texas’s highest criminal court told the second court of appeals it had to reconsider its ruling upholding Mason’s conviction. On Thursday, that court said there was insufficient evidence Mason knew she was ineligible to vote.

Justice Wade Birdwell wrote for the court in its Thursday ruling: “We conclude that the quantum of the evidence presented in this case is insufficient to support the conclusion that Mason actually realized that she voted knowing that she was ineligible to do so and, therefore, insufficient to support her conviction for illegal voting.”

Mason, who has remained out of prison on an appeal bond, said in a telephone interview on Thursday evening that she received the news while going through a drive-through and became emotional. “I was thrown into this fight for voting rights and will keep swinging to ensure no other citizen has to face what I’ve faced and endured for the past seven years, a political ploy where minority voting rights are under attack,” she added.

Although Mason was not particularly involved in politics before her case, she has since become much more engaged in raising awareness about voting rights. In 2022, she opened a rally for Beto O’Rourke.

A key piece of evidence in the case was testimony from the head poll worker, Mason’s neighbor, who assisted her with filling out the provisional ballot. Before submitting it, he said he went over an affidavit with her in which she had to affirm she was not serving a criminal sentence. The affidavit is poorly designed – it crams an admonition in both English and Spanish in relatively small print on one side, and requires the voter to fill out information on the other.

Mason signed the affidavit, but says she never understood that it meant she could not vote. The court on Thursday agreed there was not sufficient evidence to show she “actually realized” the affidavit meant she could not vote.

Alison Grinter Allen, one of her lawyers, said: “Crystal has gone through so much, and all of Texas owes her a great debt of gratitude. Through eight years, never once did she stop fighting, never once did she take her eyes off of the fact that this case was about every single voter in Texas.”

Despite her acquittal, the case has taken a significant toll on Mason and her family.

After Mason was arrested in 2017, she lost her job at a bank. She was also sent back to federal prison for several months for being arrested while on probation for a federal crime. During that time, she almost lost her home to foreclosure.

“Although I’ve cried for seven years straight, seven nights a week … I’ve also prayed for seven years straight, seven nights a week. Prayed that I would remain a free Black woman,” she said in a statement.

“I am overjoyed to see my faith rewarded today.”

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Eurovision: Olly Alexander and other competitors reject calls to boycott over Israel participation

The former Years and Years singer and star of It’s a Sin signed a joint response affirming a stance against ‘all forms of hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia’

Britain’s Eurovision competitor Olly Alexander and several other entrants have rejected calls to boycott this year’s Eurovision song contest owing to its inclusion of Israel among the competitors, stating their belief in “the unifying power of music, enabling people to transcend differences and foster meaningful conversations and connections”.

Maxine Peake and the author Sarah Schulman were among a list of more than 450 queer artists, individuals and organisations who signed an open letter as Queers for Palestine calling on Alexander – the former Years and Years singer and star of Channel 4’s It’s a Sin – to pull out of the contest in solidarity with Palestine.

The letter, posted on Instagram by Queers for Palestine, read: “We share the vision of queer joy and abundance you’ve offered through your music, and share your belief in collective liberation for all. In this spirit, we ask you to heed the Palestinian call to withdraw from Eurovision … There can be no party with a state committing apartheid and genocide. At a time when accountability is so urgently needed, Israel’s inclusion in Eurovision would enable and cover up its war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Alexander posted his own response on Instagram – which he said he had also sent directly to Queers for Palestine – as well as signing a joint letter alongside other Eurovision competitors.

In his reponse he wrote: “I wholeheartedly support action being taken to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the return of all hostages and the safety and security of all civilians in Palestine and Israel.

“I know some people will choose to boycott this year’s Eurovision and I understand and respect their decision. As a participant I’ve taken a lot of time to deliberate over what to do and the options available to me. It is my current belief that removing myself from the contest wouldn’t bring us any closer to our shared goal.”

Instead, he wrote, he would collaborate with other Eurovision contestants on how to “use our platform to come together and call for peace”. He thanked Queers for Palestine and stated his hope “that we can continue to work together in creating a better world for all of us”.

The collective letter, signed by Alexander along with Ireland’s Bambie Thug, Norway’s Gåte, Portugal’s Iolanda, San Marino’s Megara, Switzerland’s Nemo, Denmark’s Saba, Lithuania’s Silvester Belt and Finland’s Windows95Man, began by acknowledging “the privilege” of taking part in Eurovision.

“In light of the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and particularly in Gaza, we do not feel comfortable being silent. It is important to us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and communicate our heartfelt wish for peace, an immediate and lasting ceasefire and the safe return of all hostages.”

The letter stated the signatories’ stance against “all forms of hate, including antisemitism and Islamophobia” and concluded: “We feel that it is our duty to create and uphold this space, with a strong hope that it will inspire greater compassion and empathy.”

The open letter calling on Alexander to boycott the competition drew support from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – a founding member of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. “This is the moment for Eurovision participants including Olly Alexander to make history, instead of letting it pass them by,” it said.

Alexander is set to compete with the song Dizzy, which peaked at No 42 on the UK singles chart.

The Eurovision grand final takes place on 11 May in Malmö, Sweden. More than 1,000 Swedish artists have called for Israel to be banned from participating and more than 1,400 Finnish music industry professionals signed a petition to ban Israel from taking part in the contest.

In 2022, Russia was banned from participating in Eurovision a day after the country invaded Ukraine. The European Broadcasting Union, which runs the event, said Russia’s participation would “bring the competition into disrepute”. The decision to let Israel compete has seen many accuse the organisers of double standards.

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Aberdeenshire pupils with complex needs ‘erased’ from school photo

Families sent two versions of a class photo to choose from, with one excluding children with additional needs

Parents have complained their children were being “erased from history” after a version of their school’s class photos excluded children with additional support needs.

A photographer working for Tempest Photography took separate pictures of the P5 class at Aboyne primary school in Aberdeenshire, with the children with additional needs reportedly removed from one set. Parents were then sent a link with both versions to choose from.

It was reported that a set of twins was split up so that the child who uses a wheelchair was excluded from one version.

Natalie Pinnell, whose daughter Erin was among those excluded from a set of photographs, told the Press and Journal: “I am absolutely heartbroken. Furious. A lot of the other parents have decided not to purchase their school photos in support. That means a lot.”

“To give people the option to erase my daughter from history for the sake of optics is frankly inhumane. One of the cruellest things that I’ve ever experienced. Me and the other parents just feel devastated beyond belief.”

Pinnell said the school was not aware of the decision to take two sets of photos and investigated immediately once it was alerted by parents.

A second parent, Lisa Boyd, told the newspaper her daughter Lily – who is a wheelchair user – was removed from an alternative photo, leaving the nine-year-old’s twin sister devastated.

Parents have received an apology from the local council, which said the decision had not been taken by the school, and that the link to the photos has been removed.

The Cornwall-based photography company, which employs local photographers to take school photos across the UK, said it had launched an investigation. It said: “We are currently investigating the situation with the school and have no further comment.”

Aberdeenshire council said: “We are aware that following Aboyne primary school’s recent school class photographs, links to purchase the pictures included images with and without complex needs provision pupils.

“Whilst this was not a decision taken by the school, we absolutely appreciate the distress and hurt this has caused some parents and carers and we are sincerely sorry.

“The issue has been taken up with the photography company directly as this is totally unacceptable.”

The council added: “Aboyne is an inclusive school and every single child should be included, engaged and involved in their learning and school experiences.”

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Sister of beheaded teacher accuses France of failing to protect school staff

Mickaëlle Paty, whose brother Samuel was killed by an extremist, speaks out after Paris head resigns following alleged death threats

The sister of Samuel Paty, the French teacher beheaded by an Islamist terrorist in 2020, has accused the authorities of failing to appreciate or act on the continuing threat extremists pose to school staff.

Speaking after alleged death threats to a Paris headteacher, who resigned last week, Mickaëlle Paty said the state appeared to have learned little from her brother’s killing.

Paty said there had been a “multitude of faults” by the school and education authorities, and ministers needed to study all the loopholes that could have led to her brother’s death. In particular, she accused them of ignoring his fears for his life after he and the school were named on social media, along with calls for violent action against him.

“The intelligence service was able to identify all these elements, there was no flaw in the collection of information. But the problem is was what was done with it. It’s as if there was a pause, where they waited to see if there’s going to be an act.” It was “totally obvious that he should be withdrawn … and benefit from protection”, she said.

Paty accused the government of “denial” and said it had a “wait-and-see” attitude after her brother was threatened, accusing it of “of abandonment” and “cowardice”.

She said she had not intended to speak to the press but the lack of government action had pushed her into the spotlight. “The lack of progress, the lack of awareness of what happened to my brother in the last three and a half years has pushed me to be more and more proactive to force the state to do something,” she told the television and radio channel BFMTV-RMC.

She said there had been some progress, in that since her brother’s death threats to teachers had elicited a “fairly rapid reaction” from the authorities to protect them, but it was not enough.

Last week, the head of the state-run Maurice Ravel secondary school in Paris, known for its European and international sections, resigned in an email to colleagues, citing “security reasons” following death threats after he had asked a student to remove her headscarf on the premises. Religious symbols including headwear are banned in French schools.

The headteacher said he was leaving “for his own safety and that of the school”, while the education authorities claimed he was leaving for “personal convenience” and taking “early retirement”. The pupil claimed the head had been violent towards her but the Paris public prosecutor’s office dismissed her complaint. Police are now investigating allegations of cyber-harassment linked to the death threats.

Paty, 47, a history and geography teacher, was stabbed then decapitated near his secondary school in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine after showing a class caricatures of the prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as part of an ethics class to discuss free speech laws in France. His attacker, Abdoullakh Anzorov, a radicalised Chechen-born 18-year-old, was shot dead by police.

A 13-year-old girl who was not in the class and falsely claimed Paty had asked Muslim students to identify themselves and leave the classroom was convicted of making false accusations last December. Five other teenagers were convicted of criminal conspiracy with intent to cause violence.

Mickaëlle Paty’s lawyers have given the government two months to respond to a request for “official recognition of the state’s responsibility for the attack” on her brother before lodging a legal complaint. She said the move was “to do justice to Samuel’s memory … and to prevent similar tragedies happening again”.

Last October, an Islamist extremist stabbed to death another French teacher, Dominique Bernard, 57, at a secondary school in the north-eastern town of Arras.

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Louis Gossett Jr, first Black man to win supporting actor Oscar, dies aged 87

Actor who also won Emmy for role in seminal TV miniseries Roots died in Santa Monica, California

Louis Gossett Jr, the first Black man to win a supporting actor Oscar, and an Emmy winner for his role in the seminal TV miniseries Roots, has died. He was 87.

“It is with our heartfelt regret to confirm our beloved father passed away this morning,” Gossett’s family said in a statement, adding: “We would like to thank everyone for their condolences at this time. Please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

He wrote extensively about suffering racial discrimination and police harassment earlier in his career, even while he was breaking boundaries as an actor.

Gossett made strides first on the boards of Broadway before going on to prominent roles on both the big and small screens – although winning an Oscar in 1983 was not the golden ticket to lead roles as it is for many other Hollywood stars.

Gossett’s nephew told the Associated Press that the actor died on Thursday night in Santa Monica, California. No cause of death was revealed.

In 2010, Gossett revealed that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Gossett always thought of his early career as a reverse Cinderella story, with success finding him from an early age and propelling him forward, toward his Academy Award for An Officer and a Gentleman.

He earned his first acting credit in his Brooklyn high school’s production of You Can’t Take It With You while he was sidelined from the basketball team with an injury.

“I was hooked – and so was my audience,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir An Actor and a Gentleman.

His English teacher urged him to go into Manhattan to try out for Take a Giant Step. He got the part and made his Broadway debut in 1953 at age 16.

“I knew too little to be nervous,” Gossett wrote. “In retrospect, I should have been scared to death as I walked onto that stage, but I wasn’t.”

Gossett attended New York University on a basketball and drama scholarship. He was soon acting and singing on TV shows hosted by David Susskind, Ed Sullivan, Red Buttons, Merv Griffin, Jack Paar and Steve Allen.

Gossett became friendly with James Dean and studied acting with Marilyn Monroe, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen at an offshoot of the Actors Studio taught by Frank Silvera.

In 1959, Gossett received critical acclaim for his role in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun along with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands.

He went on to become a star on Broadway, replacing Billy Daniels in Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr in 1964.

Gossett went to Hollywood for the first time in 1961 to make the film version of A Raisin in the Sun. He had bitter memories of that trip, staying in a cockroach-infested motel that was one of the few places to allow Black people.

In 1968, he returned to Hollywood for a major role in Companions in Nightmare, NBC’s first made-for-TV movie that starred Melvyn Douglas, Anne Baxter and Patrick O’Neal.

This time, Gossett was booked into the Beverly Hills hotel and Universal Studios had rented him a convertible. Driving back to the hotel after picking up the car, he was stopped by a Los Angeles county sheriff’s officer who ordered him to turn down the radio and put up the car’s roof before letting him go.

Within minutes, he was stopped by eight sheriff’s officers, who had him lean against the car and made him open the trunk while they called the car rental agency before letting him go.

“Though I understood that I had no choice but to put up with this abuse, it was a terrible way to be treated, a humiliating way to feel,” Gossett wrote in his memoir. “I realized this was happening because I was Black and had been showing off with a fancy car – which, in their view, I had no right to be driving.”

After dinner at the hotel, he went for a walk and was stopped a block away by a police officer, who told him he broke a law prohibiting walking around residential Beverly Hills after 9pm. Two other officers arrived and Gossett said he was chained to a tree and handcuffed for three hours. He was eventually freed when the original police car returned.

“Now I had come face to face with racism, and it was an ugly sight,” he wrote. “But it was not going to destroy me.”

In the late 1990s, Gossett said he was pulled over by police on Pacific Coast Highway while driving his restored 1986 Rolls Royce Corniche II. The officer told him he looked like someone they were searching for, but the officer recognized Gossett and left.

He founded the Eracism Foundation to help create a world where racism does not exist.

In August 1969, Gossett had been partying with members of the Mamas and the Papas when they were invited to actor Sharon Tate’s house. He headed home first to shower and change clothes. As he was getting ready to leave, he caught a news flash on TV about Tate’s murder. She and others were killed by Charles Manson’s associates that night.

Louis Cameron Gossett was born on 27 May 1936, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, to Louis Sr, a porter, and Hellen, a nurse. He later added Jr to his name to honor his father.

Gossett broke through on the small screen as Fiddler in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots, which depicted the atrocities of slavery on TV.

Gossett became the third Black Oscar nominee in the supporting actor category in 1983. He won for his performance as the intimidating Marine drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman opposite Richard Gere and Debra Winger. He also won a Golden Globe for the same role.

“More than anything, it was a huge affirmation of my position as a Black actor,” he wrote in his memoir. The Oscar gave me the ability of being able to choose good parts,” Gossett said in Dave Karger’s 2024 book 50 Oscar Nights. He said his statue was in storage.

He said winning an Oscar did not change the fact that all his roles were supporting ones. He played an obstinate patriarch in the 2023 remake of The Color Purple.

Speaking to the New York Times in 1989, he said: “If I were to put myself in the body of the rank-and-file Black actor, then the situation in the industry isn’t looking so good … For the average Black actor, the situation isn’t that different than the way it used to be.”

Describing his roles as a character actor, Gossett said: “There were times I wanted to quit altogether … Our employment was basically fulfilling Hollywood’s stereotypes about Blacks, and the whole mocking mentality of the crews – well, I wanted to leave the business.”

Gossett struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction for years after his Oscar win. He went to rehab, where he was diagnosed with toxic mold syndrome, which he attributed to his house in Malibu.

He is survived by his sons Satie, a producer-director from his second marriage, and Sharron, a chef whom he adopted after seeing the seven-year-old in a TV segment on children in desperate situations.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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