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13 Russians Charged in Mueller Investigation

A federal grand jury investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election on Friday indicted 13 Russian nationals including 12 employees of a St. Petersburg, Russia-based company that carries out online influence operations on behalf of Moscow.


The indictment alleges that Internet Research Agency, a propaganda outfit tied to the Kremlin, engaged “in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.


WATCH: Rosenstein on ‘Information Warfare’ Against US

The firm’s 12 employees are accused of carrying out its “interference operations targeting the United States” from 2014 to the present, according to the indictment.  

The goal was to “promote discord in the United States to undermine public confidence in democracy,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday. “We must not allow them to succeed.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office announced the indictments.

Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian election interference has led to the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates.


Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and the transition.


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Belgian Court Orders Facebook to Stop Collecting Data

Belgian media say a Brussels court has ordered Facebook to stop collecting data about citizens in the country or face fines for every day it fails to comply.

The daily De Standaard reported Friday that the court upheld a Belgian privacy commission finding that Facebook is collecting data without users’ consent.

It said the court concluded that Facebook does not adequately inform users that it is collecting information, what kind of details it keeps and for how long, or what it does with the data.

It has ruled that Facebook must stop tracking and registering internet usage by Belgians online and destroy any data it has obtained illegally or face fines of 250,000 euros ($311,500) every day it delays.

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Turkey: 6 Journalists Sentenced to Life Over Failed Coup

Turkey’s state-run news agency says a court in Istanbul has sentenced six journalists accused of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt to life prison terms.

Anadolu Agency says those sentenced Friday include Ahmet Altan, the former editor-in-chief of Taraf newspaper, his brother, journalist and academic Mehmet Altan, and prominent journalist Nazli Ilicak.

The journalists were accused of links to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the July 15, 2016, failed coup. Gulen denies the accusation.

The defendants were charged with attempts against Turkey’s constitution and membership in a terror organization. 

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White House Blames Russia for ‘NotPetya’ Cyber Attack

The White House on Thursday blamed Russia for the devastating “NotPetya” cyber attack last year, joining the British government in condemning

Moscow for unleashing a virus that crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers in countries across the globe.

The attack in June of 2017 “spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the Americas,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

“It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict,” Sanders added. “This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences.”

The U.S. government is “reviewing a range of options,” a senior White House official said when asked about the consequences for Russia’s actions.

Earlier on Thursday, Russia denied an accusation by the British government that it was behind the attack, saying it was part of a “Russophobic” campaign that it said was being waged by some Western countries.

The so-called NotPetya attack in June started in Ukraine where it crippled government and business computers before spreading around Europe and the world, halting operations atports, factories and offices.

Britain’s foreign ministry said in a statement released earlier in the day that the attack originated from the Russian military.

“The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The attack masqueraded as a criminal enterprise but its purpose was principally to disrupt,” it said.

“Primary targets were Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors. Its indiscriminate design caused it to spread further, affecting other European and Russian business.”

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Russia Blocks Opposition Leader Navalny’s Website

Russia’s communications providers on Thursday blocked access to the website of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on orders of the state communications watchdog.

Navalny announced the move via his Twitter account, which was still accessible. Users going to the website were told it could not be reached.

The agency, Roskomnadzor, had demanded that Navalny remove a video alleging that Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko received lavish hospitality from billionaire Oleg Deripaska.

Deripaska rejected the report and won a court ruling that ordered Navalny to remove the investigation as an unlawful intrusion into the tycoon’s privacy. Navalny refused, and appealed the ruling.

A statement Thursday from Deripaska’s Basic Element company said: “Mr. Deripaska’s claim is to protect his right to privacy, and has nothing to do with any political struggle between Mr. Navalny and his political opponents.”

Navalny’s investigation drew from the social media account of a woman who claims to have had an affair with Deripaska.

The woman, who calls herself Nastya Rybka, has written a book about her work as an escort and said on Russian television last year she had been hired by a modeling agency to spend time at Deripaska’s yacht.

Instagram on Thursday had removed some of Rybka’s posts following Roskomnadzor’s request, but a YouTube video of Navalny’s investigation that has generated over 5 million views remained available.

Rybka posted several videos in 2016 showing Deripaska on his yacht talking with Prikhodko. In one snippet, Deripaska explains to the woman why relations between Russia and the United States are so bad.

Deripaska has been linked to U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who has been indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Navalny, the most vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, wanted to run against him in Russia’s March 18 presidential election, but was barred because of a fraud conviction in a case that many see as politically motivated.

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Russian Mother Grieves for Son Killed by US Strike in Syria

For Russian mother Farkhanur Gavrilova, the blow came a week ago when an acquaintance called her to say that her son was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria that pitted Russian and U.S. combatants against each other for the first time in the Syrian war.

Gavrilova’s son, 37-year-old Ruslan Gavrilov, was one of seven men in this central Russian village of 2,300 who are believed to have joined a private military company called Wagner. The company reportedly was involved in a Feb. 7 attack on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria and suffered devastating losses in a U.S. counterstrike.

On the morning of Feb. 8, she said, her son’s colleague called to say he was told by an unidentified caller that Ruslan had died in the Feb. 7 airstrike.

“He was torn to pieces,” said Gavrilova, 67, speaking Thursday in her sparsely furnished apartment. “If he was alive — he is a plucky guy — he would have tried to call.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday for the first time acknowledged that five Russians had been killed by the U.S. strike in Syria, emphasizing they weren’t on active military duty. Previously, both Russian and U.S. officials said they had no information on Russian casualties in the clash.

Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in the fight against opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States, and elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. Moscow and Washington long have feared a collision between Russian and U.S. combatants in Syria and sought to prevent it by maintaining a regular communications link between the militaries.

Observers blame the Feb. 7 clash on a lack of coordination between the Russian military and private military contractors in Syria.

Along with the Russian military, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought in Syria as private contractors. That allows the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its Syrian military campaign low, helping to avoid negative publicity as President Vladimir Putin runs for re-election in Russia’s March 18 presidential vote.

Lure of high pay

Gavrilova said she had tried to dissuade her son, who was remodeling apartments, from going to Syria but he was lured by a promise of a high pay.

“Why did they leave? Because of poverty, to make money,” Gavrilova said.

Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one.

Putin declared victory in Syria on a visit to a Russian military base there in December, and ordered a partial pullout of troops. Many Russian politicians and commentators long have assailed the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge the Russian contractors’ presence in Syria.

A push for oil assets appears to have been the top mission for Russian private contractors in Syria. The Associated Press last year obtained a copy of a contract between a Russian company and the Syrian government that would give the Russians a 25 percent cut of the proceeds from the oil fields they capture and guard.

Unlike many other military contractors with previous experience of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Gavrilova’s son hadn’t even done his military service.

“I thought they went there to do some odd jobs,” Gavrilova said. “They did not even undergo medical tests. He called me from Krasnodar and asked: `Mother, what is my blood type?”‘

The Krasnodar region in southern Russia hosts a training base for the Wagner company on the grounds of a Russian Defense Ministry installation, according to social media evidence and testimony of the relatives. A listing for the company could not be found to seek comment.

Gavrilova and a relative of another Wagner fighter said the men from Kedrovoye all traveled to Krasnodar before traveling to Syria.

Others fighting, dying

Asked if she knew anyone else in the village whose family members were fighting in Syria, Gavrilova pointed at a two-story house just across the yard. Yevgeny Berdyshev, interviewed there, quoted his half brother Alexander Potapov as saying he was driven to go to Syria by “patriotic sentiment.”

“He would say: ‘Putin is waging the right war. He’s killing IS fighters.’ But I understand, of course, that he didn’t have a choice,” Berdyshev said.

Potapov, a 54-year-old father of two, had fought in two separatist wars in Chechnya. Yet work was hard to come by, especially because he was no longer young, and had a hand injury and a criminal conviction, Berdyshev said. Potapov worked at a sawmill before he left in October last year with Gavrilov.

Starved of reliable information about Russians in Syria, the residents in Kedrovoye, 1,400 kilometers (880 miles) east of Moscow, are getting together, compiling lists of who went to Syria and exchanging any news they get from the men’s associates.

Potapov’s brother showed a piece of paper with six names of other locals now in Syria.

One more, Igor Kosoturov, originally from the nearby town of Asbest but linked to Kedrovoye people, is also believed to have been killed in Syria. Natalya Krylova, a local legislator in Asbest, confirmed Kosoturov’s death.

Krylova, who has been friends with him for several decades, said the 45-year-old Kosoturov went to fight alongside Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2015 and received the town’s award for a “humanitarian mission” there.

Oleg Surnin, head of a paramilitary Cossack group in Asbest, said by phone it was “evident” that Kosoturov and another Asbest resident, Stanislav Matveyev, were killed in the U.S. airstrike on Feb. 7, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

The grieving families are waiting for those who survived the U.S. strike to come home and describe what happened to the others.

“At first, everyone was weeping out loud, but how long can you cry?” Gavrilova said. “It’s the uncertainty that’s gnawing at me.”

She said she couldn’t understand why Russian men ended up on a battlefield in Syria if they were not part of the Russian army.

“Why were they taken away? Why does this organization exist?” she asked.

Berdyshev is indignant about the Russian government’s refusal to even acknowledge the existence of the private contractors.

“They do exist,” he said. “The government sends in troops, it is responsible for its actions. They sent in the troops, they sent back the troops, but actually there are still some [Russians], and it’s all secretive.”

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Violence during Rio Carnival Spotlights Security Woes

A series of muggings, armed robberies and confrontations during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival celebrations are underscoring the deteriorating security situation in the city. 

TV Globo on Wednesday showed videos of gunfire between rival drug gangs, teenagers punching tourists in areas usually considered relatively safe and a policeman narrowly escaping after several people attacked him in front of his home.

Rio state Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao acknowledged there weren’t enough police on hand during the first couple days of Carnival, though more than 17,000 policemen worked in Rio state each day during the festivities. 

“We were not prepared. There was a failure on the first two days, and then we brought backup for police. I think there has been a mistake in our part,” Pezao said. 

Statistics from the Friday to Tuesday bash have not yet been released. However, Pezao said the number of firearms confiscated by authorities was “incredible.” 

A year after hosting the 2016 Olympics, Rio is experiencing a spike in violence. Days before Carnival, rival drug gangs closed key arteries of the city. 

Last year Rio used almost 12,000 policemen during Carnival, but it also counted on the help of 9,000 members of the country’s armed forces. This time there was no federal aid during the bash.

Politicians avoided Rio during one of the most political Carnivals in Brazil’s history, with revelers targeting Pezao, President Michel Temer and especially Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop who is no fan of the party and left the city for Europe.

Beija-Flor de Nilopolis won the samba-school parade title on Wednesday in Rio’s Sambadrome using corruption as a theme. One of its floats portrayed a rat below the building of state-oil Petrobras, which is at the center of a corruption scandal that has engulfed politicians across Latin America. 

Crowd favorite Paraiso do Tuiuti finished in a surprising second place, likely because of its political tone. The samba-school’s anti-slavery theme attacked Temer’s labor reform and the president himself. One of Tuiuti’s floats featured a vampire wearing a presidential sash. 

Next week Temer, whose popularity is at single-digits, wants to push through a reform of Brazil’s pension system. Analysts have said bill is unlikely to pass with October’s presidential election approaching. The Carnival atmosphere did not help the president make his case for austerity.

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