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US Scholarship to Fund Law Students in Civil Rights

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund launched a $40 million scholarship program on Monday to support a new generation of civil rights lawyers, dedicated to pursuing racial justice across the South.With that whopping gift from a single anonymous donor, the fund plans to put 50 students through law schools across the country. In return, they must commit to eight years of racial justice work in the South, starting with a two-year post-graduate fellowship in a civil rights organization.”The donor came to us,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The donor very much wanted to support the development of civil rights lawyers in the South. And we have a little bit of experience with that.”Indeed, the LDF has been backing civil rights lawyers ever since its founding by Thurgood Marshall in 1940, during an era when Black people rarely had effective legal representation and Black students were turned away from Southern universities. It funded the creation of Black and interracial law firms in several Southern states in the 1960s and 1970s and has built a network of lawyers since then.Reflecting the urgency of these times, the fund has set an application deadline of February 16, giving this fall’s incoming first-year law school students less than a month to make their cases for the opportunity.”While without question we are in a perilous moment in this country, we are also in a moment of tremendous possibility, particularly in the South,” Ifill said. “The elements for change are very much present in the South, and what needs to be strengthened is the capacity of lawyering.”The LDF chose Martin Luther King Day to announce the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program, named for the Supreme Court justice and for Constance Baker Motley, who was an LDF attorney just a few years out of Columbia University Law School when she wrote the initial complaint that led to the court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawing racial segregation in public schools. She later became the first Black woman federal judge.”Our country continues to be plagued with racial injustice, and we need Nonviolent Warriors who are prepared and equipped on all fronts to deal with it — especially on the legal front,” the Rev. Bernice King said in a statement supporting the program. “It will allow the LDF to make greater strides on behalf of the Black community for generations to come in the area of racial justice, just as they did during the movement led by my parents.”The New York-based LDF, which has offices in Washington, also announced Monday that it will open a regional office in Atlanta as part of a renewed effort to fulfill the promise of that 1954 ruling. “We still have the largest desegregation docket outside the Justice Department,” more than 100 cases stemming from Brown v. Board of Education that still haven’t been closed, LDF Associate Director Janai Nelson said.Educational inequity, impediments to voting, racial and economic injustice, the policing crisis and confronting the resurgence of overt white supremacy are just some of the challenges these lawyers will face, said Nelson, adding: “We feel this program is a timely antidote to this particularly violent history that has resurfaced.”The LDF shared a statement from Cecilia Marshall, the justice’s 92-year-old widow, who said the fund is especially meaningful to her “because of Thurgood’s powerful partnership with lawyers across the South who served with him as co-counsel on so many consequential civil rights cases.”And Joel Motley, the late judge’s son, said he’s delighted that his mother’s legacy will live on through “well-trained and committed litigators” who “will defend the rights of Black people across the South, dismantling the structures of white supremacy.” 

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COVID-19 Deaths Rising In 30 US States Amid Winter Surge

Coronavirus deaths are rising in nearly two-thirds of American states as a winter surge pushes the overall toll toward 400,000 amid warnings that a new, highly contagious variant is taking hold.  As Americans observed a national holiday Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded with federal authorities to curtail travel from countries where new variants are spreading. Referring to new versions detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, Cuomo said: “Stop those people from coming here. … Why are you allowing people to fly into this country and then it’s too late?” The U.S. government has curbed travel from some of the places where the new variants are spreading — such as Britain and Brazil — and recently it announced that it would require proof of a negative COVID-19 test for anyone flying into the country. But the new variant seen in Britain is already spreading in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that it will probably become the dominant version in the country by March. The CDC said the variant is about 50% more contagious than the virus that is causing the bulk of cases in the U.S.  FILE – A health care worker tends to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center during the coronavirus pandemic in San Jose, California, January 13, 2021.While the variant does not cause more severe illness, it can cause more hospitalizations and deaths simply because it spreads more easily. In Britain, it has aggravated a severe outbreak that has swamped hospitals, and it has been blamed for sharp leaps in cases in some other European countries. Many U.S. states are already under tremendous strain. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths is rising in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and on Monday the U.S. death toll surpassed 398,000, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University — by far the highest recorded death toll of any country in the world.  One of the states hardest hit during the recent surge is Arizona, where the rolling average has increased over the past two weeks from about 90 deaths per day to about 160 per day on January 17.Rural Yuma County — known as the winter lettuce capital of the U.S. — is now one of the state’s hot spots. Exhausted nurses there are now regularly sending COVID-19 patients on a long helicopter ride to hospitals in Phoenix when they don’t have enough staff. The county has lagged on coronavirus testing in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods and just ran out of vaccines.  But some support is coming from military nurses and a new wave of free tests for farmworkers and the elderly in Yuma County. FILE – Tents are set up so people who have registered can get their COVID-19 vaccinations as they drive through the parking lot of the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, January 12, 2021.Amid the surge, a vast effort is under way to get Americans vaccinated, but the campaign is off to an uneven start. According to the latest federal data, about 31.2 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, but only about 10.6 million people have received at least one dose. In California, the most populous state, counties are pleading for more vaccine as the state tries to reduce a high rate of infection that has led to record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. Although the state last week said anyone age 65 and older can start receiving the vaccine, Los Angeles County and some others have said they don’t have enough to inoculate so many people. They are concentrating on protecting health care workers and the most vulnerable elderly in care homes first. On Monday, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District sent a letter asking for state and county authorization to provide vaccinations at schools for staff, local community members — and for students once a vaccine for children has been approved. The death rate from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County — an epicenter of the U.S. pandemic — works out to about one person every six minutes. On Sunday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District suspended some pollution-control limits on the number of cremations for at least 10 days in order to deal with a backlog of bodies at hospitals and funeral homes.  In other areas of the country, officials are working to ensure that people take the vaccine once they’re offered it amid concerns that many people are hesitant to take it. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in a livestreamed event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, received a shot, and urged other Marylanders to do likewise. “We’re all looking forward to the day we can take off and throw away our masks … when we can go out for a big celebration at our favorite crowded restaurant or bar with all our family and friends,” Hogan said. “The only way we are going to return to a sense of normalcy is by these COVID-19 vaccines.” In New York, Cuomo said the state, which has recorded more than 41,000 deaths, is “in a footrace” between the vaccination rate and the infection rate. He said federal authorities needed to improve their efforts to get vaccine doses distributed swiftly. 

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EU, US Demand Release of Kremlin Critic as Calls Grow for ‘Magnitsky’ Sanctions

Western leaders have demanded the release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested Sunday on arrival in Moscow after receiving medical treatment in Germany.The 44-year-old Putin critic and leader of the Russia of the Future party was poisoned by a nerve agent in Siberia last August. The Kremlin denies involvement in that attack.“The Russian authorities have arrested the victim of an attempted assassination with a chemical weapon, not the perpetrator,” German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert told reporters Monday. “The German government strongly calls on the Russian government to first of all release Mr. Navalny immediately and secondly to fully investigate the circumstances of the chemical weapons attack on Russian soil,” he added.Other European leaders echoed that demand, while the United Nations’ human rights office said it was “deeply troubled” by Navalny’s arrest.U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the same words on Twitter: “Deeply troubled by Russia’s decision to arrest Aleksey Navalny. Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents.”President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted: “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable. The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.”Navalny was arrested as he entered passport control in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport Sunday evening. Dozens of his supporters, who had gathered at a different airport before Navalny’s plane was diverted, were also taken into custody. There were further arrests Monday in St. Petersburg as his supporters staged street protests.Police officers detain a man at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport where Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is expected to arrive, outside Moscow, Russia, Jan. 17, 2021.In a rapidly convened, highly unusual judicial hearing Monday inside Khimki police station on the outskirts of the capital, a judge ruled that Navalny should be held in pretrial detention for 30 days for breaching the conditions of a suspended jail sentence.Prosecutors want the 3½-year suspended sentence for embezzlement converted into a full jail term. Navalny says the charges are politically motivated. In a mobile phone video recorded from inside the police station Monday, he said the hearing was a “mockery of justice.”“I do not understand why the hearing of the Khimki court is taking place at a police station. Why no one was informed or notified? I have seen a lot of times the mockery of justice, but it looks like the old man in his bunker (Putin) is so scared of everything, that the criminal procedures’ code has been blatantly torn up and thrown into the garbage. The thing which is happening here is simply impossible. This is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Navalny said.He called on his supporters to take to the streets.“Don’t be silent, resist, take to the streets. Nobody would protect us but ourselves. But we are so many that if we want to achieve something, we will achieve it,” he said.Navalny tried to run for president in 2018 but was barred following his conviction for embezzlement, which he says was fabricated. His return to Russia presents a challenge to President Vladimir Putin, says Russia analyst Ben Noble of University College London.“With the State Duma elections coming up in 2021, not only is Navalny a visible demonstration of opposition to the Kremlin, his anti-corruption foundation and its production of very slick YouTube videos with evidence of corruption of state officials and other members of the economic elite in Russia are an embarrassment for the Kremlin. It’s certainly a danger for the Kremlin that Navalny turns into a martyr or his status as a martyr is consolidated,” Noble told VOA.Western nations have so far stopped short of punitive action. The EU last month joined allies in adopting a so-called Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions on individuals accused of human rights abuses. Financier Bill Browder, who was instrumental in pushing the legislation following the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail, told VOA it’s time the laws were put into action.“If you include all the countries of the EU, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., there are 31 countries. And so that will have a very significant effect on Russia, on the people who are sanctioned. And as I understand it, Navalny and his team, before they got on the plane, have constructed some type of list of who they think should be on this sanctions list.”Putin sees that outcome as the lesser risk, Noble said.“The logic I imagine in the Kremlin will be that they can deal with that short-term turbulence; but getting him – this is an expectation – getting him in prison would be a way of depriving him of that media exposure,” Noble said. In a press conference Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed criticism of Navalny’s arrest.“Western politicians view this as an opportunity to draw attention away from the deepest crisis the liberal development model has found itself in,” Lavrov said.Analysts say Russia’s actions will exacerbate tensions with the West, as both sides prepare for a new U.S. administration to take power this week under President-elect Joe Biden. 

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Should Social Media Platforms Lose Legal Protection?

The decision by social media giants to police more content, along with banning U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters from posting, is intensifying a debate in Europe over how to regulate platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.The hotly contested debate has mostly focused on whether governments should intervene to censor and curtail freedom of speech, or whether they should protect opinion from being blocked or scrubbed by the social media giants, however offensive the views. But a growing number of European leaders sees a third way to reduce fake news, hate speech, disinformation and poisonous personal attacks — by treating social media providers not as owners of neutral platforms connecting consumers with digital content creators but as publishers in their own right. This would help sidestep fears over state censorship of speech, they say.Amending laws to make them legally responsible, just as traditional newspapers and broadcasters are for the content they carry, would render the social media companies liable for defamation and slander lawsuits. By blocking content and banning some users, social media companies have unwittingly boosted the argument that they are content providers, as they are now in practice taking on a greater role as editors of opinion.British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference in Downing Street on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, in London, Dec. 24, 2020.“I do think there’s a real debate now to be had about the status of the big internet companies and whether they should be identified as mere platforms or as publishers, because when you start editorializing, then you’re in a different world,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a parliamentary committee last week. Many European Union leaders have criticized social media companies for banishing Trump and his supporters from their platforms. Facebook has blocked or deleted content that uses the phrase, “Stop the Steal,” which refers to false claims of election fraud. Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts of QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business and the media.German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media during a statement at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2020 on the results of the US elections.German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her concerns about the blocking and deleting, calling it a step too far.“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, told reporters.Some countries led by populist governments, such as Poland, are considering drafting legislation that would prohibit Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies from censoring opinions, fearing the social media giants will censor them.But political pressure is also mounting in other countries for the state to regulate speech and to police social media platforms.The idea that social media companies should be subject to similar regulation as newspapers and television and radio broadcasters is not new. Newspaper owners have long bristled at the social media platforms being treated differently under the law from traditional media. They have complained that Facebook and others are piggy backing off the content they produce, while reaping massive profits selling ads.FILE – The Facebook application is displayed on a mobile phone at a store in Chicago, July 30, 2019.Last year, Facebook pushed back on the idea of social media platforms being treated like traditional media, arguing in a report that they should be placed in a separate category halfway between newspapers and the telecommunications industry. The company agreed that new regulatory rules are needed but argued they should focus on the monitoring and removal of mechanisms that firms might put in place to block “harmful” posts, rather than restrictions on companies carrying specific types of speech or being liable for content. Johnson’s advocacy of treating social media giants like traditional media is being echoed in the United States, where Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The measure largely allowed the companies to regulate themselves and shielded them from liability for much of the content posted on their platforms.Section 230 of the legislation stated: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Ironically, Section 230 has drawn the disapproval of both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. Both have called for the section’s repeal, which would make social media legally responsible for what people post, rendering them vulnerable to lawsuits for defamation and slander. Last week, Biden told The New York Times he favored the internet’s biggest liability shield being “revoked, immediately.” 

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As Biden Presidency Nears, Many Americans Ready to Move On

Americans are getting ready to inaugurate President-elect Joe Biden after one of the nation’s most contentious elections and a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. Mike O’Sullivan reports on the mood of the nation as the United States transitions into its next political phase.
Camera: Genia Dulot, Natasha Mozgovaya, Jose Pernalete

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Winter Weather Hits Parts of Europe, From Poland to Turkey

Extreme cold has hit large parts of Europe, with freezing temperatures cracking railroad tracks in Poland, snow blanketing the Turkish city of Istanbul and smog spiking as coal was being burned to generate heat.
Temperatures dropped to minus 28 degrees Celsius (minus 18 Fahrenheit) in some Polish areas overnight, the coldest night in 11 years. Many trains were delayed on Monday after rail tracks at two Warsaw railway stations cracked.
Hand-in-hand with the cold came a spike in smog in Warsaw and other parts of Poland, as the cold prompted an increase in burning coal for heat. The smog levels were so high in Warsaw that city officials urged people to remain indoors.
Just across Poland’s southwestern border, the Czech Republic experienced the coldest night this year with temperatures dropping below minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) in many places.
The lowest temperature, of minus 27 degrees Celsius (minus 16 Fahrenheit), was recorded Monday in Orlicke Zahori, a mountainous village 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of Prague and near the Polish border, according to the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute.
The freezing weather was expected to ease and be replaced by heavy snowfall in the northeastern Czech Republic, the institute said.
In Istanbul, traffic was brought to a halt by the layer of snow covering the city, with cars stalled or skidding on the roads. The flurries were to continue throughout the day.
In Germany, fresh snow, slippery roads and fallen trees led to several car accidents on Sunday and overnight, the dpa news agency reported. A driver died in southwestern Germany after his car shot over a mound of snow.
The Nordic region — where winter weather is the norm — also saw snow and subfreezing temperatures, with the coldest temperatures predictably recorded in the Arctic. Norway’s meteorological institute tweeted a tongue-in-cheek message on Monday, saying: “we encourage all knitting lovers to send woolen clothes to their friends in the north.”

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Markets Mixed in Face of Economic, Political Turmoil

European markets are mixed Monday as investors pull back in response to last week’s dismal U.S. retail figures, along with the worsening COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol building.   
 
Britain’s FTSE index is down 0.3% at midday.  France’s CAC-40 index is also 0.3% lower, while the DAX index in Germany is up 10 points but unchanged percentage-wise (+0.08%).   
 
Asian markets began the trading week on a downward spiral hours earlier.  Japan’s benchmark Nikkei index fell 0.9%.  Australia’s S&P/ASX index closed down 0.7%.  The KOSPI index in South Korea plunged 2.3%, while Taiwan’s TSEC lost just over 4 points, but was virtually unchanged percentage-wise (0.03%) and the Sensex in Mumbai was down 0.9%.
 
Shanghai’s Composite index closed 0.8% higher and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose just over one percent, spurred by news that China’s economy grew 2.3% in 2020, overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic that has shattered much of the global economy.   
 
In commodities trading, gold is up 0.1%, selling at $1,831.80.  U.S. crude oil is selling at $52.19, down 0.3%, and Brent crude is selling at $54.82, down 0.5%.    
 
All three major U.S. indices are closed in observance of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. federal  holiday.  

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