The Guardian 2024-07-03 21:12:18


Cracks showing in Democratic support as Biden says he ‘nearly fell asleep on stage’

Polls show Kamala Harris would be only a point behind Trump if she were to replace Biden in presidential contest

More cracks in confidence in Joe Biden’s re-election chances were opening on Wednesday as he prepared to meet with Democratic governors in the evening, amid increasingly poor polls, growing calls to withdraw – and Barack Obama reportedly privately sharing that his former vice-president’s path to re-election is even tougher post-debate.

Biden will be talking with state governors and Capitol Hill leaders all week, officials indicated on Tuesday, in attempts to reassure them of his competence and address escalating discontent among party leaders after last week’s calamitous debate performance against Donald Trump.

But Democratic anger and frustration continue to rise, in public and, especially, behind the scenes as senior figures scramble to make sense of the crisis at the White House and plot the way forward.

At a Virginia campaign event on Tuesday evening, the US president blamed his weak debate on his international trips leading up to the event, saying: “I wasn’t very smart. I decided to travel around the world a couple times, going through around 100 time zones … before … the debate. Didn’t listen to my staff and came back and nearly fell asleep on stage. That’s no excuse but it is an explanation.”

This despite a week in between to rest and prepare back in the US before last Thursday night’s debate.

Former president Obama has shared in private with Democratic allies who sought his counsel that Biden, who was his vice-president during his two terms in the White House, was already on a tough road to re-election and that road was now more rocky after the debate, the Washington Post reported late on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources who told the newspaper they were familiar with the former president’s remarks.

Obama talked with Biden by phone after the debate and the Biden re-election campaign spoke of Obama’s “unwavering support”, while the former president’s team declined to comment, the outlet further reported.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that one in three Democrats said Biden should end his re-election campaign after the debate in Atlanta where he gave a low-energy, garbled performance.

And even former first lady Michelle Obama, who has never held elected office, led Trump 50% to 39% in a hypothetical match-up put to those responding to pollsters, Reuters reported.

As of Tuesday evening, a House Democratic aide said, there are 25 Democratic members of the House of Representatives preparing to call for Biden to step aside. Biden’s campaign, however, has continued to downplay concerns, noting that the president had raised $38m since last week.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Lloyd Doggett, a congressman from Texas, became the first Democrat in the House of Representatives to publicly urge the president to step aside.

Doggett brought his own misgivings into the open, saying he had hoped the debate “would give some momentum” to the president’s stagnant poll ratings in key battleground states.

“It did not,” he said. “Instead of reassuring voters, the president failed to effectively defend his many accomplishments and expose Trump’s many lies.”

Several prominent Democrats who previously served in the House or Senate have already spoken out, calling on Biden to step aside.

And some ostensibly supportive figures, including the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn, a representative from South Carolina, have issued statements that hinted at ambivalence.

“I think it’s a legitimate question to say, is this an episode or is this a condition? When people ask that question, it’s completely legitimate – of both candidates,” Pelosi told MSNBC, adding that she had heard “mixed” views on whether Biden was fit for the presidential campaign.

Kamala Harris, the vice-president, is the top alternative to replace Biden if he decides not to continue his re-election campaign, according to seven senior sources at the Biden campaign, the White House and the Democratic National Committee with knowledge of current discussions on the topic, according to Reuters.

Some influential Democrats have floated alternatives to Biden besides Harris, including popular cabinet members and Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom from California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. But trying to sidestep Harris is wishful thinking and would be nearly impossible, these sources, who did not wish to be named, said.

If named as the party nominee, Harris, 59, would take over money raised by the Biden campaign and inherit campaign infrastructure, the sources said. She also has the highest name recognition among all the alternatives, and the highest polling among Democrats who could seriously be considered a candidate, the sources said.

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Tuesday, Harris trailed Trump by one percentage point, at 42% to 43%, a difference that was well within the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error, a showing statistically just as strong as Biden’s.

Sam Levin, Joanna Walters and Reuters contributed reporting

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Video appears to show gang-rape of Afghan woman in a Taliban jail

Exclusive: Activist claims she was threatened with release of the footage in order to silence her, amid multiple reports of sexual violence inflicted upon imprisoned Afghan women

The Guardian has seen video evidence of a female Afghan human rights activist being gang-raped and tortured in a Taliban jail by armed men.

There have been mounting reports that sexual violence is being inflicted on women and girls being held in detention in Afghanistan, but this video is believed to be the first direct evidence of these crimes occurring.

According to the activist, the mobile phone footage was later sent to her as a threat that it would be shared more widely if she continued to speak out against the Taliban regime.

In the video recording viewed by the Guardian, the young woman is filmed being told to take off her clothes and is then raped multiple times by two men.

The woman in the video – recorded on a phone by one of the armed men – tries to cover her face with her hands. One of the men pushes her hard when she hesitates as he gives her orders.

At one point she is told, “You’ve been fucked by Americans all these years and now it’s our turn.”

The woman has said that she was arrested for taking part in a public protest against the Taliban and was raped while being held in detention in a Taliban prison. She has since fled Afghanistan. She said that after she spoke out against the Taliban in exile, she was sent the video and told that if she continued to criticise the regime the video would be sent to her family and released on social media.

“If you continue saying anything bad against the Islamic Emirate, we will publish your video,” she said she was told.

She believes that the attack was deliberately recorded to be used to silence and shame her. The person filming the assault captures her standing naked with her face visible and she is identifiable during the attacks.

Last week the Guardian published accounts of teenage girls and young women who said that they were sexually assaulted and beaten after being detained under Afghanistan’s draconian hijab laws.

In one case, a woman’s body was allegedly found in a canal a few weeks after she had been taken into custody by Taliban militants, with a source close to her family saying she had been sexually abused before her death.

The UN’s special rapporteur on Afghanistan has recently reported that women were thought to be facing sexual violence in detention.

Since they took power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed what human rights groups are calling a “gender apartheid” on Afghanistan’s 14 million women and girls, excluding them from almost every aspect of public life. Women and girls are blocked from attending secondary school, banned from almost every form of paid employment, prevented them from walking in public parks, attending gyms or beauty salons and told to comply with a strict dress code.

The Taliban have also announced the reintroduction of the public flogging and stoning of women for adultery.

The Guardian and Rukhshana Media spoke with multiple other female protestors and activists who have also come forward to allege that they have been tortured and beaten after being arrested for calling for women’s rights.

Zarifa Yaqubi, 30, said she was imprisoned for 41 days in November 2022, after attempting to organise a movement for Afghan women.

“They gave electric shocks and hit parts of my body with cables so that I would not be able to show in front of the camera tomorrow,” she said, adding that she had been tortured into admitting to taking money from foreigners to protest against the Taliban.

Parwana Nejarabi, 23, said she was beaten and given electric shocks after being detained by Taliban forces when protesting for women’s rights in early 2022. She said she spent a month in solitary confinement and was shown a letter with an order for her to be stoned to death. “I could hear them saying, ‘She should be killed,’” she said. She was released after a forced confession and fled Afghanistan to live in exile.

Despite the huge risks to their safety, women inside Afghanistan are still staging public protests and criticising the Taliban regime, with Rukhshana Media recording at least 221 acts of protest by women and girls over the past two years.

A spokesperson for the Taliban, Zabhullah Mujahid, denied the allegations of the widespread sexual assaults on women in prison.

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch said the Taliban continue to act with “complete impunity for abuses, particularly behind the prison walls.”

“The Taliban are aware of how much stigma is involved around the issue of sexual violence in Afghanistan and how incredibly difficult – and usually impossible – it is for victims of sexual violence to come forward and tell their stories, even sometimes to their own families, because there is a risk of shame and potentially ‘honour’ violence,” said Barr.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said: “I am alarmed by reports of torture and ill-treatment in Afghanistan, including allegations of sexual violence in detention, especially of women. We are continuing to look into these reports and to establish the facts.”

Earlier this week, Taliban officials took part in a special meeting on Afghanistan hosted by the UN in Doha to discuss the country’s future. No Afghan women were present at the meeting and women’s rights were not included on the agenda.

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Good morning. I’m Andrew Sparrow, taking over from Helen Sullivan.

Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, has been the lead voice for the Conservative party on the morning broadast round during the election, but no one would claim that he is the most exciting politician in Britain. Today, though, he said something very striking. Election concessions normally come at around 4am on Friday morning, but on the Today programme Stride delivered what sounded very much like a formal concession of defeat. He told the programme:

I totally accept that, where the polls are at the moment, means that tomorrow is likely to see the largest Labour landslide majority, the largest majority that this country has ever seen. Much bigger than 1997, bigger even than the National government in 1931.

What, therefore, matters now is what kind of opposition do we have, what kind of ability to scrutinise government is there within parliament.

This is a huge claim. And it is an exaggerated one; the National government in 1931 had a majority of 492, which not even the wildest MRP poll is predicting this time round. But the mainstream expectation from pollsters is that Labour will have a bigger majority on Friday than Tony Blair did in 1997 (179). Last night the polling firm Survation said Labour was “99% certain to win more seat than in 1997”.

Of course, Stride is not saying this because he wants to provide Today listeners with impartial analysis. It is an escalated version of the Tory plan to talk up the prospect of a Labour “supermajority” and it has two aims: first, to encourage people worried about the prospect of a Labour majority to vote Tory; and, second (and perhaps more importantly – there are more people in this group), to encourage people who are not passionately anti-Labour to think they can safely stay at home tomorrow.

If you want to contact me, please post a message below the line (BTL) or message me on X (Twitter). I can’t read all the messages BTL, but if you put “Andrew” in a message aimed at me, I am more likely to see it because I search for posts containing that word. If you want to flag something up urgently, it is best to use X; I’ll see something addressed to @AndrewSparrow very quickly. I find it very helpful when readers point out mistakes, even minor typos (no error is too small to correct). And I find your questions very interesting too. I can’t promise to reply to them all, but I will try to reply to as many as I can, either BTL or sometimes in the blog.

Tories say Labour set for win as Starmer warns of attempt to suppress turnout

Tories accused of deploying tactic to limit losses after Mel Stride says Labour heading for ‘largest majority ever’

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One of Rishi Sunak’s most loyal cabinet allies has said Labour is heading for “the largest majority any party has ever achieved”.

Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, conceded that defeat in Thursday’s UK election appeared inevitable and said it was “highly unlikely” the polls were wrong.

Stride’s comments came as Sunak, Keir Starmer and others embarked on the final day of campaigning before voters go to the polls. In response to the remarks, Starmer accused the Conservatives of trying to suppress voter turnout.

Labour has maintained its 20-point polling lead over the Conservatives throughout the six-week campaign, suggesting it is heading for a landslide.

Stride, who was a supporter of Sunak’s Tory leadership campaign and has regularly been sent out to bat for the government on broadcast rounds, sought to warn against giving Labour “untrammelled” power.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I have accepted that where the polls are at the moment – and it seems highly unlikely that they are very, very wrong, because they’ve been consistently in the same place for some time – that we are therefore tomorrow highly likely to be in a situation where we have [with Labour] the largest majority that any party has ever achieved.”

Separately he told GB News: “If you look at the polls, it is pretty clear that Labour at this stage are heading for an extraordinary landslide on a scale that has probably never, ever been seen in this country before.”

He said that if about 130,000 people in about 100 marginal seats who might be considering voting Reform or Liberal Democrat supported the Tories, it would help to give parliament a more robust opposition. “I’m really worried about an untrammelled Labour party in power, and that really needs to be checked, and people will regret it if we don’t have that,” Stride told LBC.

The former home secretary Suella Braverman, a potential Tory leadership contender should Sunak go, wrote in the Telegraph that the election was “over” and called for a “searingly honest post-match analysis” as victory should no longer be the goal for the Tories.

“Thursday’s vote is now all about forming a strong enough opposition,” she wrote. “One needs to read the writing on the wall: it’s over, and we need to prepare for the reality and frustration of opposition.”

Starmer said the remarks from Stride and Braverman were an attempt to get voters to stay at home in order to limit their losses.

“You can see what the Tories are up to,” the Labour leader told reporters at a campaign event in Wales. “They’re trying to invite people not to exercise their democratic right to go out and vote, trying to dissuade people from voting. That is a terrible place for the Tory party to have got to.

“A once-respected party is now saying with 24 hours to go nothing that is positive, everything is negative, effectively, to run a campaign to suppress the vote.”

Braverman blamed the Tories’ dire poll ratings on a fracture within the party resulting from a rise in the popularity of Nigel Farage’s Reform UK.

She said: “It is notable that Labour’s vote share has not markedly increased in recent weeks, but our vote is evaporating from both left and right. The critics will cite Boris [Johnson] Liz [Truss], Rwanda, and, I can immodestly predict, even me as all being fatal to our ‘centrist’ vote.

“The reality is rather different: we are haemorrhaging votes largely to Reform. Why? Because we failed to cut immigration or tax or deal with the net zero and woke policies we have presided over for 14 years.”

Boris Johnson made an appearance at a Tory rally on Tuesday night in an attempt to give the Conservative campaign a late boost.

Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, said he had “had boiled eggs that have lasted longer than this show of unity”.

“Almost before he [Johnson] was finished speaking, we had Suella Braverman in the Telegraph saying that it had all been a terrible mess,” McFadden told Times Radio. “It is all quite late for Boris to now be throwing his weight behind a prime minister, when, I think – to borrow a phrase from Northern Ireland – even the dogs in the street know there’s not a lot of love lost there.”

A Survation MRP poll, which includes constituency-level data, suggested it was “99% certain” that Starmer would win more seats than his party did in Tony Blair’s landslide. Labour won more than 418 seats in 1997.

The poll of 34,558 people said prominent Tory cabinet ministers who could lose their seats to Labour included the Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt, in Portsmouth North, the defence secretary, Grant Shapps, in Welwyn Hatfield, and the party chair, Richard Holden, in Basildon and Billericay.

It also said Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, was set to lose in Godalming and Ash and Gillian Keegan would lose Chichester to the Liberal Democrats.

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French PM says efforts to prevent far-right majority can succeed

Gabriel Attal urges on campaign to peg back rise of National Rally as candidates pull out to avoid splitting vote

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France’s prime minister has said nationwide efforts to prevent Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) winning an outright majority in parliament could succeed, after more than 200 candidates pulled out of Sunday’s legislative election runoff to avoid splitting the anti-far-right vote.

“We can avoid an absolute majority for the far right,” Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday, adding that 90% of candidates from President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist camp had quit three-way races if they were in third with an RN candidate ahead of them.

RN and its potential future prime minister, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, finished a comfortable first in last Sunday’s first-round election with 33% of the vote, followed by the New Popular Front (NFP) alliance on 28% and the president’s Together alliance on 20%.

A historically high turnout dramatically boosted the number of second-round contests featuring three candidates to more than 300, increasing the anti-immigrant party’s chances of securing the 289 seats it would need for an absolute majority.

Although accurate seat projections are difficult before the shape of each constituency contest is known, pollsters’ initial estimates suggested RN could return as many as 300 deputies. The high number of runoff withdrawals makes that less likely.

Attal said centrist candidates were right to stand down even in favour of a rival from the radical-left France Unbowed (LFI), part of the NFP leftwing alliance. “Neither LFI or NFP can win an absolute majority,” he said. “RN can.”

He added: “What’s at stake is to do everything so that the extreme right does not have an absolute majority. It is not nice for some French to have to block … by voting in a way they did not want to. I say it’s our responsibility to do this.”

According to Le Monde, 221 candidates, including 132 from NFP and 83 from Macron’s camp and its allies, had withdrawn from potential three-way runoffs by the Tuesday evening deadline, leaving 94 so-called “triangular” contests.

The “republican front”, aimed at shutting the far right out of power, has long been a feature of French politics but had shown signs of fraying in recent elections as voters tired of having to vote against candidates they disliked rather than for those they backed.

While the parties have largely swung behind it, this time there is no guarantee centrist voters will be prepared to vote for candidates from the far-left LFI, or that leftwing voters angry with Macron will be happy to cast their ballots for candidates from his camp.

Asked about calls for the creation of a provisional cross-party government in the event of a hung parliament, Attal repeated his proposal for a range of mainstream parties to cooperate on individual pieces of legislation. “I hope the Together camp is as big as possible. After that, we will seek to secure majorities on a project-by-project basis,” he said.

The former prime minister Édouard Philippe also called on Wednesday for a broad-based coalition. He said such an alliance could run from “the conservative right to social democrats”, but would exclude the far left, saying there could be “no discussion about a coalition with LFI”. Many centrists argue the radical-left party, which believes traditional parties no longer serve democracy, does not share “republican values”.

Le Pen said on Tuesday that she could try to form a rightwing coalition with MPs from other parties if RN fell short of an absolute majority. Bardella had previously said he would only form a government with a sufficiently strong mandate.

She said her party would seek to form a government with “for example, 270 MPs”, which would require it to find support from a further 19 to govern. “If we then have a majority, then yes, of course, we’ll go and do what the voters elected us to do,” she said.

With RN already supporting dozens of dissident candidates from the divided centre-right Les Républicains party, however, most analysts believe the far-right party will have difficulty recruiting more than a handful more supporters in parliament.

The government spokesperson, Priscille Thevenot, on Wednesday dismissed claims by Le Pen of an “administrative coup d’état” by Macron after the president made a number of senior public sector appointments between the two rounds of voting.

“We knew that Marine Le Pen lies, now we know she also manipulates information,” Thevenot said after a cabinet meeting. She said a similar number of nominations were made every week and these had been “completely routine” and “nothing specific”.

Analysts say the most likely outcome of the second-round vote is a hung parliament that could lead to months of political paralysis. The chaos also risks damaging the international credibility of Macron, who has not spoken in public since last week.

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Yesterday at 6pm, candidates in France faced a deadline to register for Sunday’s second round of legislative elections.

Amid pressure for a republican front to limit the success of the far right, many candidates candidates withdrew for races.

According to Le Monde’s latest count this morning, 221 candidates have withdrawn from races since Sunday’s first round of elections.

By this morning, according to the newspaper, 94 three-way races are still expected to take place, and one four-way race.

Reuters is reporting that security sources have told it that a senior field commander in Lebanese armed group Hezbollah was killed in the Israeli strike reported earlier outside the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Earlier Lebanon’s national news agency reported that there were two people injured as ambulances attended the scene.

Emanuel Fabian, military correspondent at the Times of Israel, posted on social media to state Saudi media has identified the person killed as Abu Ali Nasser. Fabian says he was “the head of the terror group’s Aziz unit, one of three regional divisions in south Lebanon The unit is responsible for the eastern district on the Israel-Lebanon border.”

Over 400 people have been killed inside Lebanon by Israeli forces since 7 October, including at least 80 civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from their homes in both southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

According to Hezbollah’s own military media figures, about 330 of its fighters have been killed by Israel. On the Israeli side of the UN-drawn blue line that separates the two countries there have been about 10 civilians and 18 Israeli troops killed.

Reuters is reporting that security sources have told it that a senior field commander in Lebanese armed group Hezbollah was killed in the Israeli strike reported earlier outside the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Earlier Lebanon’s national news agency reported that there were two people injured as ambulances attended the scene.

Emanuel Fabian, military correspondent at the Times of Israel, posted on social media to state Saudi media has identified the person killed as Abu Ali Nasser. Fabian says he was “the head of the terror group’s Aziz unit, one of three regional divisions in south Lebanon The unit is responsible for the eastern district on the Israel-Lebanon border.”

Over 400 people have been killed inside Lebanon by Israeli forces since 7 October, including at least 80 civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from their homes in both southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

According to Hezbollah’s own military media figures, about 330 of its fighters have been killed by Israel. On the Israeli side of the UN-drawn blue line that separates the two countries there have been about 10 civilians and 18 Israeli troops killed.

India deadly crush blamed on huge overcrowding as death toll passes 120

Police report says 250,000 people had gathered at a Hindu event in Uttar Pradesh that had a capacity of 80,000

About 250,000 people had gathered at the Hindu religious congregation in northern India where 121 people died in a crowd crush, triple the capacity permitted by authorities, a police report has said.

The deadly crush took place on Tuesday at a religious function known as a satsang held in a village in Hathras, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, when hundreds of thousands of devotee turned up to see Bhole Baba, a popular self-styled guru.

According to authorities, the crowd who turned up to offer prayers to the baba, whose real name is Narayan Sakar Vishwa Hari, was three times larger than the 80,000 for which authorities had granted permission.

According to witnesses, the crush was caused after large numbers surged forward in an effort to touch the feet of the guru and the ground he had driven away on, which is deemed holy by his devotees, while organisers used force to prevent people moving off the roads to safety.

The event was held in a large tent erected in agricultural fields around the village. Those present said it had been raining heavily in the days leading up to the satsang, causing people to slip and fall in the wet muddy fields. The death toll rose to 121 on Tuesday, with mostly women and children among the dead.

Rama Devi, 40, was among 80 people from the village of Baghauli, in the neighbouring state of Jaipur, who had travelled by bus to attend the satsang. She was accompanied by her sister-in-law, her 10-year-old nephew, Ayush, and five-year-old niece, Kavya. Both children were killed in the stampede.

Devi said she had been attending events held by the guru for the past seven years, and that all had been normal at the Hathras event until he had left the venue.

“People started pushing after Baba left. I was holding my nephew Ayush firmly but then people started falling on me, and I lost his grip,” she said. “I fell down, and people were walking over me. I somehow managed to get up and walk out of the crowd. My nephew was nowhere in sight. I was crying and calling his name, but there were so many people.”

Devi said when she regained consciousness she was in hospital, and later learned both her nephew and niece had died. She was among those who accused the police of failing to manage the event. “The police were just standing on the road and watching people die, they did not make any efforts to manage the event and control the crowd,” she said. “I feel guilty that they died because of me.”

A police report filed after the event stated that “due to the uncontrollable crowd leaving the venue, devotees sitting on the ground were crushed”.

The report added: “On the other side of the road, the crowd running in the water- and mud-filled fields was forcibly stopped by the organising committee with sticks, due to which the pressure of the crowd kept increasing and women, children and men kept getting crushed.”

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, ordered an investigation into the deaths, alleging that local organisers “tried to cover up the incident”. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, said that the victims would be “helped in every way”.

Police said cases had been registered against the organisers of the event but Baba Vishwa Hari was not named in the police report. Neither the organisers nor the guru have made a statement about the deadly crush.

The guru, who is reported to previously have been a police officer before he became a self-styled spiritual leader, has regularly held such gatherings in local villages for years. According to Kuldeep Kumar, 30, who runs a shop in the village, three people had died in a stampede 12 years ago at a similar event held by the guru.

Among those attending Tuesday’s satsang was Amit Kumar, 22, a farmer from the nearby village of Mughal Garhi. He described how a large tent had been set up for the arrival of the guru, which was “suffocating” even before his arrival around midday, where he gave only a brief sermon to the huge crowd.

“As soon as his cars were leaving the venue, people started running towards the highway to collect the dirt where his car had been,” said Kumar. “It was so crowded that people could not save themselves and kept falling on each other. I was caught in a similar situation and literally walked over dozens of bodies. Had I tried to help anyone that time, I would not have been speaking to you this time.”

He added: “There was so much pressure from the crowd, and it was so packed that I felt my chest burst. I don’t know how I managed to get out of this crowd and save myself. I am still shaking, thinking of how crowded it was.”

Kumar said he had returned to the scene two hours later to help with the rescue effort. “There were bodies stuck in the mud,” he said. “It was very difficult to get them out. Then ambulances also arrived after a while, and it took us hours to get all the bodies out of the fields.”

Families of the dead and missing remained gathered at the hospital and morgue in Hathras on Wednesday, desperate for answers and trying to find the bodies of their loved ones.

Among them was Saurab Kumar, 30, from Etah in Uttar Pradesh, who had attended the event with 15 relatives. He said that as the crush began, he ran to save himself but afterwards he could not find his mother. Kumar returned to the muddy fields where dozens of dead bodies lay in the mud, but could not identify her.

Late on Tuesday night, one of his relatives discovered her body in the morgue. “There was no crowd control management and no medical staff to deal with this crisis,” he said. “It is the government that is responsible for the deaths of my mother and so many others.”

Numerous incidents of crowd crushes at religious events and pilgrimages have taken place in India in recent years. Rajesh Kumar Jha, a member of parliament, questioned why fatalities kept occurring, stating that “people will keep on dying” if authorities did not take safety protocols seriously enough.

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Court orders Japanese government to pay damages over forced sterilisations

Japan’s supreme court rules that practice under now-defunct eugenics law was unconstitutional

Japan’s supreme court has ordered the government to pay damages to dozens of people who were forcibly sterilised under a now-defunct eugenics law, saying the practice had violated their constitutional rights.

Wednesday’s ruling by the country’s highest court marks a major victory for the 39 plaintiffs, and thousands of other people with illnesses and genetic and mental disorders who had undergone procedures without their consent, mostly between the 1950s and 1970s.

The compensation claim rested on whether the court would accept the government’s argument that the plaintiffs could no longer seek redress as a 20-year statute of limitations applying to the cases had expired.

The 1948 eugenic protection law, which was not abolished until 1996, allowed doctors to carry out forced sterilisations to “prevent the generation of poor quality descendants”.

Japan’s government has acknowledged that 16,500 people – some as young as nine – were forcibly sterilised under the law. A further 8,500 who gave their consent were likely to have come under intense pressure to do so.

All 15 supreme court judges found the eugenics law to be unconstitutional, the Kyodo news agency reported. They said the legislation violated article 13 of the constitution, which protects people against undergoing physically invasive procedures against their will, and article 14, which stipulates the right to equality.

One of the victims, Saburo Kita, was persuaded to undergo a vasectomy when he was 14 and living in a facility for children with behavioural problems. “I have had an agonising 66 years because of government surgery,” Kita, who uses a pseudonym, said before the ruling.

“I was robbed of my life and want it back,” added the 81-year-old, who only told his wife about his ordeal shortly before she died in 2013.

A government document from 1953 said physical restraint, anaesthesia and even “deception” could be used to facilitate the operations. A small number of forced sterilisations were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s before the law was abolished.

Japan was forced to confront its connection with eugenics in 2018, when a woman in her 60s sued the government over a procedure she had undergone at 15 due to an intellectual disability, prompting a flood of similar lawsuits.

The government “wholeheartedly” apologised after legislation was passed in 2019 stipulating a lump-sum payment of ¥3.2m (about £15,750 today) for each victim.

The then-prime minister, Shinzō Abe, voiced “sincere regret”, adding: “During the period the law was in effect, many people were subjected to operations that made them unable to have children based on their having a disability or another chronic illness, causing them great suffering.”

Survivors said the sum did not match the severity of their suffering and took their fight to court.

In those cases, four high courts awarded damages – ¥11m to ¥16m to each plaintiff, as well as ¥2.2m to the spouse of a deceased victim – and ruled that invoking the statute of limitations would be “grossly unjust”. A fifth did apply the statute, but agreed with the others that the law had been unconstitutional.

Germany and Sweden had similar measures, but have since apologised to victims and provided compensation.

The cases have highlighted the Japanese state’s past mistreatment of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. In the 1950s, thousands of leprosy patients were forced to live in sanatoriums located in mountains or on remote islands. Many were sterilised or made to have abortions.

“The ruling will hopefully pave the way for active steps to be taken by the government to eliminate the kind of eugenic mentality that it created,” Saburo Kita’s lawyer, Naoto Sekiya, said before the ruling.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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Four dead as Hurricane Beryl wreaks havoc across Caribbean

Storm moving towards southern Hispaniola and expected to hit Jamaica with ‘devastating hurricane-force winds’ on Wednesday

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At least four people have died after Hurricane Beryl wreaked “almost complete destruction” on small and vulnerable islands in the Caribbean.

The monster hurricane, which is now barrelling towards Jamaica, had strengthened to category 5 status. Although the storm is now back down to a Category 4, the US National Hurricane Center is warning that Beryl is still expected to bring “devastating hurricane-force winds” and life-threatening and storm surge to parts of Jamaica as well as the Cayman Islands.

On Tuesday, the US National Hurricane Center said that the eye of the storm was moving quickly towards southern Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Beryl, the 2024 Atlantic season’s first hurricane and the earliest storm on record to reach the highest category, left a trail of “utter devastation” in Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

According to early reports from the two multi-island nations, hundreds of buildings, including homes, schools, hospitals and police stations, have been badly damaged or completely destroyed.

At least 90% of building structures are believed to have been affected on the Grenadine island of Union, part of SVG.

There was also a country-wide electricity blackout, and Beryl has severely affected communication and transportation channels, leading to difficulties in assessing the true impact of the devastation on some islands.

“The situation is grim,” prime minister Dickon Mitchell told Grenadians as he gave an update on the Grenadian islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique early on Tuesday.

“There is no power, there is almost complete destruction of homes and buildings on the island. The roads are not passable, and in many instances, they are cut off because of the large quantity of debris strewn all over the streets.”

“In half an hour, Carriacou was flattened,” Mitchell told a press conference late on Monday.

On Tuesday, officials in the two countries were assessing the damage and seeking support from regional and international agencies.

On social media, the prime minister said the government was working to get relief supplies to both Carriacou and the island of Petite Martinique on Tuesday. “The state of emergency is still in effect. Remain indoors,” he wrote on Facebook.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, the prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, spoke about the “pain and suffering” across the nations and praised the resilience of the Vincentian people. He told reporters: “Hurricane Beryl has come and gone and has left in its wake immense destruction.

“The faces of our men and women are strained and anxious. But tomorrow, we get up with the conviction to rebuild our individual lives and our family’s lives. To rebuild our country, to recover.”

But as the prime minister focused on recovery, the country was on alert for another developing weather system. On Tuesday evening, the SVG National Emergency Management Organisation warned residents of an impending tropical wave, which is expected to bring heavy showers, gusty winds and thunderstorms.

Grenada’s attorney general, Claudette Joseph, told reporters that the country was working with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, the World Food Programme and Samaritan’s Purse on relief and rebuilding efforts.

Beryl ripped doors, windows and roofs off homes across the south-eastern Caribbean on Monday after making landfall on the island of Carriacou in Grenada as the earliest category 4 storm in the Atlantic in recorded history, fuelled by record warm waters.

From St Lucia island south to Grenada, the streets were strewn with shoes, trees, downed power lines and other debris. Banana trees were snapped in half and cows lay dead in green pastures with homes made of tin and plywood tilting precariously nearby.

A hurricane warning was in effect for Jamaica, with a hurricane watch for Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, Cayman Brac and Haiti’s entire southern coast.

Caricom, the regional intergovernmental organisation, was holding an emergency meeting to discuss support to the islands affected by Beryl.

Beryl gained its strength from record warm waters that are hotter now than they would be at the peak of hurricane season in September, according to meteorologists who say the hotter water temperatures are a result of the global climate crisis driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.

The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed reporting

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Artificial light on coastlines lures small fish to their doom, coral reef study finds

Light pollution acts as ‘midnight fridge’, drawing in young fish, then predators, according to tests in French Polynesia

Artificial light shining from coastlines around the world is acting like “a midnight fridge” full of tasty snacks, threatening young fish who can be drawn to it and who are then eaten by predators also attracted by the brightness, according to a study.

It has long been established that light pollution hampers people’s ability to see the night sky and harms migrating birds, insects and other animals. But its impact on marine ecosystems has rarely been taken into account, said Jules Schligler, the lead author of the study at the international coral ecosystem research centre in Mo’orea, French Polynesia.

Nearly a quarter of the world’s coastline, excluding Antarctica, was artificially lit, according to a satellite study carried out a decade ago, and it was probably more than this by now, Schligler said.

His study, which involved creating 12 coral test sites in the waters off Mo’orea and shining an underwater light on half of them, found the artificially lit corals first attracted fish larvae and then predators that ate them.

“We found that the coral with the light attracted two to three times more fish compared to the naturally lit control site,” Schligler told the Guardian. “The coral with the [artificial] light is a bad environment for the larval fish because there are more predators, opportunistic fish passing by, that ate them.”

The findings, he said, meant artificial light should be seen as “another threat to marine animal populations and coastal ecosystems”.

And while artificial light might appear to benefit predator fish, Schligler said more research was needed. “It could be bad for their sleep, or they could eat too much, we don’t yet know.”

The study did not look at why the larval fish were drawn to the artificial light, but there were two possibilities, he said. “The artificially lit coral could be like a midnight fridge full of tasty plankton that are drawn to the light too. The plankton attract the larvae, and then the larvae are followed by their predators.

“Or it might be both the light itself and the prospect of food that attract them. Either way it makes them all behave unnaturally.”

The findings, presented at the Society for Experimental Biology conference in Prague, focused on two species – yellowtail dascyllus (Dascyllus flavicaudus) and blue-green chromis (Chromis viridis) – but could be applied more broadly, Schligler said.

“We can only extrapolate to a certain point but our findings, and other tests we did on crab and shrimp, generally indicate that marine animals are attracted to artificial light,” he said.

Oren Levy, head of the laboratory for molecular marine ecology at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who was not part of the Schligler-led study, welcomed the Mo’orea research findings, saying they were in line with his own work.

Beyond the risk of being eaten, Levy said the Mo’orea study indicated artificial light was negatively affecting how fish aged as well as their health. “It harms the reefs too,” he added, pointing to a previous study that showed artificial light interfered with reproduction and caused corals to collapse.

More positively, Levy and Schligler said that preventing light pollution, using timers and shades for example, was not difficult. “And we can start to take light into account for things like marine protected areas,” said Schligler.

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Hippos might fly: UK research discovers animal can get airborne

Analysis shows hippos get all four feet off the ground at once up to 15% of the time when at full pelt

It takes a scientific mind to see the grunting hulk of a hippopotamus and wonder whether, given sufficient motivation, such an improbable beast might ever become airborne.

And so to researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in North Mymms, Hertfordshire, whose painstaking examination of footage of the creatures revealed that when the hefty herbivores reach top speed they do indeed take off.

Video showed hippos got all four feet off the ground at once up to 15% of the time when thundering along at full pelt, often to chase off hippo rivals.

The finding plugs a gap in scientific knowledge and places hippos somewhere between elephants and rhinos in terms of the athletic prowess displayed by some of the heaviest land animals when they need to get a move on.

“I’ve struggled to get any work done on hippos before because they’re so hard to access,” said John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics who led the research. “They’re incredibly dangerous, they tend to be most active at night, and they spend a lot of their time in the water.”

After finding no satisfying answer to the question in the scientific literature, Hutchinson dispatched a student, Emily Pringle, to Flamingo Land resort in North Yorkshire, where resident hippos have room to run. She videoed the animals as they moved between their stable and watering hole and brought back the footage for analysis.

The researchers went through it, and more gathered from YouTube, frame by frame to see whether hippos ever managed to get all four feet off the ground at once. Writing in PeerJ, they conclude that, unlike other large mammals, hippos typically stick to a trotting movement whatever speed they are moving at, but can become airborne in a rush.

Other large land animals move differently. Elephants have a standard walking gait even at high speed and never fully leave the ground. Rhinos, meanwhile, can walk, trot and even break into a gallop. The hippo footage showed the animals, which can reach more than 2,000kg, typically trot, a movement that involves diagonally opposite legs moving in synchrony.

“It’s important for our understanding of what it means to be a big animal and move on land,” said Hutchinson. The work also helps researchers piece together the evolution of locomotion in large land animals, all the way back to the giant dinosaurs.

Hutchinson said the study was “as simple as biomechanics research can get”, but had its challenges: clicking through stacks of videos frame-by-frame was not for everyone. “It’s mind-numbing,” he said. “It’s one of the things in my work that I hate the most. It’s really boring. Agonising.”

And yet, further research beckons. Word has reached Hutchinson that pygmy hippos, a different species to the animals he studied, can gallop. It raises the question of whether baby hippos can do the same, suggesting a return trip to Flamingo Land may be in order.

“I’m wondering if baby hippos can do something that adult hippos can’t,” he said. “That would be pretty neat.”

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