Judge: Lawsuit Over Guatemala Syphilis Experiment to Proceed

A U.S. federal judge in Maryland has ruled that pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s medical experiment that saw hundreds of Guatemalans infected with syphilis.

About 775 Guatemalan victims and relatives in 2015 launched a civil suit over the U.S.-led experiment, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

They claimed the experiment “subjected them or their family members to medical experiments in Guatemala without their knowledge or consent during the 1940s and 1950s.”

Judge rules in Maryland

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang, in a decision Thursday, rejected arguments from the defense that a recent Supreme Court decision protecting foreign companies from U.S. lawsuits over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic firms.

The judge said allowing the case to move forward would “promote harmony” by giving the foreign plaintiffs the opportunity to seek justice in U.S. courts.

Experiments discovered

The unethical experiment was revealed by Dr. Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the U.S.

She came across the work while researching notes left by John Charles Cutler, a public health services sexual disease specialist who headed up the experiment, following his death in 2003.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled soldiers, mental patients, prostitutes, convicts and others in Guatemala for the study.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama apologized for the experiments in 2010, while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as “clearly unethical.”

Ex-N. Korea Diplomat to Colleague: Defect to Seoul, Not US

A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South on Saturday urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the United States.

Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, South Korean lawmakers said Thursday.

Jo has applied for asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper said Friday, citing an unidentified diplomatic source.

The State Department and the U.S. embassy in Seoul did not immediately respond to a query from Reuters regarding the report.

In an open letter, Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Jo to follow in his footsteps.

To defect to the South is an “obligation, not a choice” for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Thae said, calling Seoul “the outpost” for that task.

“If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward,” Thae said in the letter released on his website. “If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself.”

Thae said his family visited Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

South Korea could not be “heaven on earth” but a place where Jo can realize his wishes, Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors there.

“The defectors may not be as wealthy as South Koreans,” Thae added. “But isn’t it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives — to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?”

Norwegian Airline’s Plane Stuck in Iran Awaiting Parts

Norwegian Air Shuttle said Friday one of its Boeing 737s has been stuck in Iran for three weeks after an unscheduled landing because of engine problems, as U.S. restrictions reportedly create headaches for the airline and possibly passengers.

The aircraft was en route from Dubai to Oslo with 192 passengers and crew members when it carried out a “safety landing” in Shiraz in southwestern Iran because of engine trouble Dec. 14, a Norwegian Air Shuttle spokesman, Andreas Hjornholm, told AFP.

While passengers were able to fly on to Oslo the following day on another aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max has been stuck on Iranian soil where the airline’s mechanics are trying to repair it, Hjornholm said.

Parts needed

According to specialized websites, the repair work has encountered problems because international sanctions bar the airline from sending spare parts to Iran.

With the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration decided to re-impose sanctions on Tehran.

Norwegian Air Shuttle refused to comment on those reports.

“I can only say that we are working with several options to get the plane back on the wings, and right now we are waiting for our technicians to be able to service the plane and to get it working,” Hjornholm said.

The incident has fueled jokes on social media.

“Iran has become a Bermuda Triangle that feeds on planes,” one Iranian Twitter user wrote.

Problem for passengers, crew

It could also pose problems for the plane’s passengers and crew members if they want to travel to the U.S. in future.

Since 2015, anyone who has traveled to seven countries considered at risk (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) since March 2011 is excluded from the U.S. visa waiver program applied to most Europeans.

According to Hjornholm, the passengers and crew on the Dubai-Oslo flight officially entered Iran and stayed overnight at a hotel, Dec. 14-15.

 

The US embassy in Oslo was not available for comment.

Last year, former NATO secretary general Javier Solana was refused entry to the U.S. because he had visited Iran for the inauguration ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

Weather Channel App Sued, Accused of Selling Users’ Data

People relied on the most popular mobile weather app to track forecasts that determined whether they chose jeans over shorts and packed a parka or umbrella, but its owners used it to track their every step and profit off that information, Los Angeles prosecutors said Friday. 

The operator of The Weather Channel mobile app misled users who agreed to share their location information in exchange for personalized forecasts and alerts, and they instead unwittingly surrendered personal privacy when the company sold their data to third parties, City Attorney Michael Feuer said.

 

Feuer sued the app’s operator in Los Angeles County Superior Court to stop the practice. He said 80 percent of users agreed to allow access to their locations because disclosures on how the app uses geolocation data were buried within a 10,000-word privacy policy and not revealed when they downloaded the app.

“Think how Orwellian it feels to live in a world where a private company is tracking potentially every place you go, every minute of every day,” Feuer said. “If you want to sacrifice to that company that information, you sure ought to be doing it with clear advanced notice of what’s at stake.” 

App defends practices

A spokesman for IBM Corp., which owns the app, said it has always been clear about the use of location data collected from users and will vigorously defend its “fully appropriate” disclosures.

Feuer said the app’s operators, TWC Product and Technology LLC, sold data to at least a dozen websites for targeted ads and to hedge funds that used the information to analyze consumer behavior. 

The lawsuit seeks to stop the company from the practice it calls “unfair and fraudulent” and seeks penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation. Any court decision would only apply to California.

 

Marketed as the “world’s most downloaded weather app,” The Weather Channel app claims approximately 45 million users a month, the lawsuit said. 

 

Users who download the free app are asked whether to allow access to their location to “get personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts.” It does not say how the company benefits from the information.

 

While disclosures may be included in the privacy policy, state law says “fine print alone can’t make good what otherwise has been made obscure,” Feuer said.

He said he learned about the sale of the private data from an article in The New York Times.

Personal data

The lawsuit comes as companies, most notably Facebook and Google, are increasingly under fire for how they use people’s personal data. Both companies faced congressional hearings last year on privacy issues, which are likely to remain on lawmakers and regulators’ minds both nationally and in California. 

In June, California lawmakers approved what experts are calling the country’s most far-reaching law to give people more control over their personal data online. That law doesn’t take effect until next year.

Feuer said he hopes the case inspires other lawsuits and legislation to curb data-sharing practices.

 

IBM bought the app along with the digital assets of The Weather Company in 2015 for $2 billion but did not acquire The Weather Channel seen on TV, which is owned by another company.

Russia Now Juggling Challenges of War-Wracked Syria

“You break it, you own it,” Colin Powell once warned in referring to U.S. military interventions overseas and the possible fallout that comes with those decisions. 

The retired general and former secretary of state invoked his old rule in 2015 to explain his reluctance about the United States becoming too involved in the civil war in Syria. Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, highlighted the painful consequences of previous interventions elsewhere, including in Iraq and Libya. 

It is a rule that some analysts say could apply to Russia as Moscow deepens its involvement in Syria.

After having intervened to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from being toppled, swinging the war definitively against the rebels just as his government appeared to be heading for defeat, the Kremlin has become more entrenched in Syria and owns the problem, say analysts.

If the Kremlin fails to secure a lasting peace, or is unable at least to stabilize the war-wracked country, still being buffeted by several micro-conflicts, then entrenchment risks turning into a potentially expensive entanglement that would undermine Russia’s new regional clout.

And one of the biggest challenges Moscow will face, if the U.S. does withdraw ground troops from the country’s northeast, as President Donald Trump has pledged, will be how to prevent a military clash developing between Syria and Turkey, they say. 

​Contradictory interests

According to analyst Aron Lund, Russia is balancing contradictory interests in Syria. The Kremlin wants to restore the central government and expand the writ of its client Assad across the country, including over the Kurdish-controlled northeast and an arc of territory from Afrin to al-Bab in the northwest now occupied by Turkish troops and rebel Sunni Muslim allies.

Turkey, a NATO member Moscow has been assiduously wooing, has its own designs on Syria, although they are as yet unclear. It has now threatened to cross east of the Euphrates River to attack Syrian Kurdish forces, which it says are aligned with Turkish Kurdish separatists. And Ankara shows no sign of being prepared either to give up its large position south of its border or to rethink its animosity toward the Syrian Kurds.

Western diplomats in Turkey’s capital say Turkish officials have been lobbying the Kremlin to allow Turkish warplanes to use Syrian airspace, now under the control of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State terror group, when the U.S. finally withdraws from the northeast. 

“Turkey has never clearly defined its plans for the area, and Turkey shows no sign of wanting to relinquish the Afrin and al-Bab regions, and is working to shore up its hold on Idlib,” Lund argues in a policy paper written for the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “Pulling NATO member Turkey out of America’s embrace is a goal of major geopolitical significance to Russia. Putin’s desire to court [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan may in the end outweigh Assad’s desire to retake outlying border regions now under Turkish control.”  

Erdogan has never made an explicit claim on northwestern Syria, but he has said Turkish troops and their Syrian Sunni allies, former anti-Assad rebels, will remain until Syria has conducted an election.

With peace talks stalled, and few signs of much progress toward a political settlement to the war, that in effect would delay for the foreseeable future Ankara’s having to make any withdrawal decision. And in the meantime, the Turks are consolidating their grasp on the northwest — rebuilding schools, entrenching their own NGOs in the region and setting up municipal authorities. 

​What’s next?

The question is whether Assad will remain patient. And if Assad seeks to shield Syrian Kurdish forces from Turkish attack, how restrained will Erdogan be in response?  

On Tuesday, Erdogan invoked Turkey’s Ottoman past when highlighting his military buildup. In a televised call to military commanders on the border as they stood outside the tomb of medieval Ottoman forebear Suleyman Shah, the president pledged to crush Turkey’s enemies — Syrian Kurds and IS militants — and underscored his ambition to retain Syrian land under Turkish control, something that not only frustrates Damascus but Assad’s other foreign backer, Iran.

Suleyman Shah’s tomb was inside Syria but transferred closer to the Turkish border in 2015 after Islamic State militants threatened to destroy it. Erdogan has promised to return the tomb to its original site and said midweek that will be “an important harbinger.” But of what he was not entirely clear. He added, “I believe your faith will bring many more victories. You’ve walked to the martyrdom and you are walking again. Allah will give us victory.”  

For weeks, the Turks have been amassing more military hardware along the border, including tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers. And inside Syria, Turkish-backed forces have moved closer to the strategic town of Manbij, controlled by Kurdish fighters, who until now have felt protected by the presence of U.S. ground troops.  This past week, the Kurds turned to Damascus for protection, calling in Assad’s forces into Manbij to deter a Turkish attack.

Juggling the interests and demands of both Damascus and Ankara while keeping Tehran satisfied is going to be a challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s also trying to prevent a potential clash between Israel, another Western-allied power he has been courting, and Iran in the south and west of the country.

​Moscow’s control

“Moscow’s permission for Ankara to use Syrian airspace enables Russia to set the pace and duration of Turkish military operations inside Syria,” according to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military analyst. Writing for the Al-Monitor news site, he said Moscow was able to control the pace in March of Turkey’s assault on Afrin, closing down Turkish air operations for a week to allow Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to withdraw from the border town without being targeted by the Turkish air force. 

“Would Turkey dare use airspace in northeast Syria despite opposition by Moscow? No,” said Gurcan. Otherwise it would not have sent a high-ranking Turkish delegation to Moscow last month to lobby for permission, he maintained. 

Being the regional power-broker, as Russia now in effect has become, will test Moscow’s juggling skills in a highly volatile corner of the world, say other analysts. Moscow could end up trapped in a quagmire.

“Though this new phase of the war has all the trappings of an endgame, some aspects of it may endure for the foreseeable future,” said Lund. He added, “With external powers now dominating spheres of influence from which Assad cannot easily oust them, Syria’s unsettled state may be turning into a frozen conflict where intermittent skirmishing and negotiations emerge as a new normal, and cease-fire lines gain permanency even in the absence of formal recognition.” 

Vatican: Argentine Bishop at Holy See Under Investigation

The Vatican has confirmed that an Argentine bishop, who resigned suddenly in 2017 for stated health reasons and then landed a top administrative job at the Holy See, is under preliminary investigation after priests accused him of sexual abuse and other misconduct.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti stressed that the allegations against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta only emerged in recent months, nearly a year after Pope Francis created the new position for him as “assessor” of the Holy See’s office of financial administration.

At the time of his July 2017 resignation, Zanchetta had only asked Francis to let him leave the northern Argentine diocese of Oran because he had difficult relations with its priests and was “unable to govern the clergy,” Gisotti said. Pending the preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual abuse underway in Argentina, the 54-year-old Zanchetta will abstain from work at the Vatican, he said.

More trouble for Pope Francis?

But the case could become yet another problem for Francis, who is already battling to gain trust from the Catholic flock over his handling of sex abuse and sexual misconduct, stemming in particular from the scandal of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Francis’ standing would take another hit if he personally intervened to help out a bishop from his native Argentina — finding a job for him during a Vatican hiring hold-down — and the man later turned out to have credible allegations of misconduct against him.

Zanchetta’s hasty departure from Oran on July 29, 2017 was mired in mystery. He didn’t celebrate a farewell Mass, as might be expected, and he issued a cryptic statement saying he had been suffering a “health problem” for some time, had just returned from the Vatican where he presented his resignation to Francis, and needed to leave immediately for treatment. 

A statement issued the same day from his vicar general said Zanchetta had already left Oran, a deeply conservative and poor diocese near Argentina’s northern border with Bolivia that Zanchetta had run since Francis made him a bishop in 2013 in one of his first Argentine episcopal appointments. 

Zanchetta, the vicar said at the time, would be staying in Corrientes — several hundred kilometers (miles) away — as a guest of the archbishop until Francis accepted his resignation. 

Zanchetta disappears

Often such procedures can take months, but the Vatican announced Francis had accepted it three days later, on Aug. 1.

Zanchetta then disappeared from view until Dec. 19, 2017, when the Vatican announced that he had been named assessor of APSA, the office that manages the Vatican’s vast real estate and other financial holdings. The appointment immediately raised eyebrows, but Zanchetta appeared nevertheless to have settled in well at APSA, and Gisotti said Francis appointed him because he had an established capacity for administrative management.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Zanchetta’s health problems were at the time of his resignation, but by all indications there were grave problems with his leadership and divisions within the diocesan clergy. 

“The reason for his resignation is linked to his difficulty in handling relations with the diocesan clergy, some of which were very tense,” Gisotti said. “At the time of his resignation there were accusations against him of authoritarianism, but there were no accusations of sexual abuse against him.”

Zanchetta spent a period of time in Spain before joining APSA.

New accusations

The allegations were leveled internally in recent months, Gisotti said, and last week the provincial newspaper in Salta, El Tribuno, reported that three priests had brought accusations against him to the Vatican’s ambassador, or nuncio, in Buenos Aires. The newspaper said the priests had lodged accusations of abuse of power, economic abuse and sexual abuse inside the seminary.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Zanchetta responded to the accusations.

The current bishop of Oran, which is in Salta province, is still gathering evidence and testimony and will forward it to the Vatican, Gisotti said. If the allegations are deemed credible, the case will be forwarded to Francis’ special commission for bishops — an ad hoc group of canon lawyers who have been examining allegations of misconduct against bishops.

The issue of sexual abuse within seminaries has risen to the forefront in the scandal over McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington. Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation that he fondled an altar boy in the 1970s was credible. After the allegation became public, several former seminarians came forward to report they had been abused or harassed by McCarrick and pressured to sleep with him.

Francis became implicated in the McCarrick scandal after a former Vatican ambassador accused him of knowing of McCarrick’s penchant for seminarians, and rehabilitating him anyway from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI. Francis hasn’t responded.

No answers to new questions

Zanchetta had opened his own seminary in Oran in 2016 with six seminarians. According to El Tribuno, the St. John XXIII seminary is due to close soon.

The diocese hasn’t responded to questions about Zanchetta’s departure or the status of the investigation against him. It has, however, issued a statement responding to media reports that the priests who lodged complaints against Zanchetta had suffered retaliation. The new bishop of Oran said the priests had been transferred to respond to the pastoral needs of the faithful.

“Knowing the gravity of all types of abuse, the bishop is available to anyone who would like to present a complaint to begin the corresponding procedure for canonical justice, while recalling the right of all victims of abuse to seek ordinary justice,” via civil authorities, the statement said.

Turkey to Host Trilateral Summit on Afghan Peace

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan says “a much stronger effort” is needed to further ongoing peace talks his country is facilitating between the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Addressing a televised joint news conference in Istanbul after official talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Khan said Afghans have suffered for decades and it is time for the International community to help bring an end to the war in the country.

“Pakistan has already been helping a dialogue between the Taliban and the Americans but it needs a much stronger effort from all the stakeholders, neighbors,” the prime minister emphasized.

Khan was referring to two-day talks in Abu Dhabi last month between U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and senior Taliban representatives that Pakistan said it had arranged.

Khalilzad and the Taliban described the dialogue “productive” and promised to meet again soon. Insurgents demand complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, saying their presence are blocking progress toward peace.

Speaking Friday, President Erdoğan announced he will host a trilateral summit meeting with Pakistan and Afghanistan after Turkey’s March 31 local elections to discuss the peace process.

“I look forward to the summit meeting inshallah [God willing] in Istanbul where we hope that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey will be able to help in this [Afghan] peace process … a much badly needed peace,” Prime Minister Khan said.

Pakistan’s role in arranging the U.S.-Taliban talks, analysts say, is leading to a thaw in Islamabad’s traditionally tumultuous relationship with Washington.

Speaking on Wednesday, President Donald Trump apparently acknowledged the improvement in mutual ties. “We do want to have a great relationship with Pakistan … so, I look forward to meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan. We will be doing that in the not too distant future.”

Khan’s two-day official meetings in Turkey ended Friday and it was his first visit to the country since taking power after the July elections in Pakistan. The two Muslim nations enjoy close relations.

Prime Minister Khan assured Turkey of his country’s support to defeat Islamic State, saying the terrorist group “already has emerged in various parts of Afghanistan” and threatens the security of Pakistan.

Erdoğan also praised a recent ruling by Pakistan’s supreme court, which declared exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen’s organization, FETÖ, a terrorist group.

The highest Pakistani court also handed over schools being run by the outlawed organization in the country to a Turkish government foundation.

Turkey accuses Gulen of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016.

Swedish Hospital Isolates Patient Amid Ebola Suspicion

A suspected case of the deadly Ebola virus has been reported by a Swedish hospital, officials said Friday, adding that the patient has been isolated.

Region Uppsala, which oversees several hospitals and medical clinics north of Stockholm, says a test had been carried out on the patient, who was not identified, adding a result would be available late Friday.

In its statement, Region Uppsala said it was so far “only a matter of suspicion,” adding “other diseases are quite possible.”

It did not say where the patient had traveled, but Sweden’s TT news agency said the patient had returned from a trip to Burundi three weeks ago and had not visited any region with the Ebola virus.

The authorities said the hospital in Enkoping where the patient was first admitted had its emergency room shut down and the staff who treated the patient were “cared for.” The patient was eventually transferred to an infection clinic in Uppsala.

“The patient came in Friday morning and reportedly was vomiting blood which may be a symptom of Ebola infection,” hospital spokesman Mikael Kohler told local newspaper Upsala Nya Tidning. He was not immediately available for further comment.

Eastern Congo currently faces an Ebola outbreak. All major outbreaks have been in Africa, though isolated cases have been reported outside the continent. The hemorrhagic fever’s virus is spread via contact with the bodily fluids of those infected.

Russian, Israeli Leaders Hold Phone Discussion on Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have held telephone consultations centering on Syria.

In the Friday call, Putin and Netanyahu “focused on developments in Syria, including in light of the United States’ stated intention to withdraw its troops from that country. They pointed to the need for the final defeat of terrorism and speedy achievement of a political settlement in Syria,” a Kremlin statement said.

Netanyahu also offered condolences following an apartment building collapse in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk this week that killed 39 people, the statement said.