US veteran on way home from Iran after detention

A US Navy veteran is returning home after being freed from detention in Iran, his family says.

Michael White was sentenced to prison last year on unspecified charges, but was released temporarily on medical grounds to the Swiss embassy in March.

He was arrested in 2018 after travelling to meet his girlfriend in the city of Mashhad.

The news comes days after an Iranian scientist detained in the US was deported.

Sirous Asgari, a materials science professor from Tehran, had been charged in 2016 with trying to trade secret research from an American university, but was acquitted in November. Both the US and Iran have denied the release of the two men is linked.

“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare,” Mr White’s mother said in a statement.

“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home.”

She thanked the US state department and Swiss diplomats for their work on the case, and asked for her family’s privacy to be respected.

Mr White was one of at least six US citizens either imprisoned in Iran or out on bail.

He was granted medical furlough to the Swiss embassy in March amid the release of large numbers of prisoners due to the spread of coronavirus in Iran.

His family said that he had visited the country a number of times before he was detained.

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Violence erupts across US on sixth day of protests

Violence has erupted in cities across the US on the sixth night of protests sparked by the death in police custody of African-American George Floyd.

Curfews have been imposed in nearly 40 cities, but people have largely ignored them, leading to tense stand-offs.

Riot police clashed with protesters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, firing tear gas and pepper bullets to try to disperse the crowds.

Police vehicles were set on fire and shops were looted in several cities.

The National Guard – the US reserve military force for domestic emergencies – said on Sunday that 5,000 of its personnel had been activated in 15 states and Washington, DC, where crowds once again gathered near the White House, this time lighting fires and throwing stones at riot officers.

“State and local law enforcement agencies remain responsible for security,” the National Guard added.

What’s the latest on the protests?

There were multiple instances of police vehicles being vandalised and set alight on Sunday. Riot officers continued to respond with tear gas and flash grenades.

In Philadelphia, local TV stations showed people smashing police cars and looting at least one store.

US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Law & Order in Philadelphia, NOW! They are looting stores. Call in our great National Guard”.

Looting was also reported in Santa Monica, California.

In Minneapolis, where Mr Floyd lost his life, a lorry driver was arrested after reportedly breaching a road barrier before speeding towards a crowd of protesters marching along a major highway.

Footage posted on social media showed dozens of people surrounding the vehicle and pulling the driver out from behind the wheel after it came to a stop.

The driver was later taken to hospital with minor injuries. There were no immediate reports of other casualties.

Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz said the motive of the driver was unclear, adding: “To not have tragedy and many deaths is simply an amazing thing.”

In Denver, thousands of people protested peacefully in Colorado State Capitol by lying face down with their hands behind their backs and chanting: “I can’t breathe.”

Large-scale protests also took place in Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Oklahoma City.

There were also several reported incidents of riot police responding disproportionately to the demonstrators. In Atlanta, Georgia, two officers were sacked on Sunday for using excessive force – including firing a taser – on two young college students.

The Floyd case has reignited US anger over police killings of black Americans. For many, the outrage also reflects years of frustration over socio-economic inequality and segregation, not least in Minneapolis itself.

Hundreds of people have been arrested since the protests began a week ago.

A white ex-policeman has been charged with murdering Mr Floyd, 46, in Minneapolis.

Derek Chauvin, 44, is due to appear in court later on Monday.

It follows the high-profile cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and others that have driven the Black Lives Matter movement.

For three years, Donald Trump presided over a nation of relative peace and prosperity. The crises he faced were largely of his own making, and he confronted them by rallying his supporters and condemning his opponents.

Now Trump faces a situation ill-suited to a playbook of division. The US economy has been hobbled by a deadly pandemic. George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has spread racial unrest across the nation. The public is uncertain and afraid – and increasingly angry.

These are circumstances that would test the abilities of even the most skilful leaders. This president, however, risks becoming lost at sea. His public calls for unity and healing have been undermined by a penchant for Twitter name-calling and bellicosity. Message discipline, a valuable attribute at this moment, is not his forte.

There may be no easy way to guide the nation through its current peril. Barack Obama’s measured coolness did nothing to stop the fires of Ferguson any more than Richard Nixon’s law-and-order edicts quelled Vietnam-era unrest.

The economic and social devastation of the pandemic has created a political landscape of dry brush ignited by the lightning strike of Floyd’s death. The president may not be able to contain the wildfire, even if he isn’t feeding the flames.

What happened to George Floyd?

On the evening of Monday 25 May, police received a phone call from a neighbourhood grocery store alleging that George Floyd had paid with a counterfeit $20 note.

Officers were attempting to put him in a police vehicle when he dropped to the ground, telling them he was claustrophobic.

According to police, he physically resisted officers and was handcuffed. Video of the incident does not show how the confrontation started.

With Mr Chauvin’s knee on his neck, Mr Floyd can be heard saying “please, I can’t breathe” and “don’t kill me”.

According to a preliminary autopsy by the county medical examiner, the police officer had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds – almost three minutes of which was after Mr Floyd became non-responsive.

Nearly two minutes before Mr Chauvin removed his knee the other officers checked Mr Floyd’s right wrist for a pulse and were unable to find one. He was taken to hospital and pronounced dead around an hour later.

A lawyer for Mr Floyd’s family has accused Mr Chauvin of “premeditated murder”.

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Pandemic limbo angers crew on ‘nightmare’ cruises

When Caio Saldanha and his fiancée Jessica Furlan arrived in the US in early March, they were looking forward to a new life working on board a lavish cruise ship.

Working on Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Infinity was supposed to be a fresh start, the next chapter in their lives together.

On 13 March, the date of the cruise’s departure, the ship became their home. Little did they know then, it would prove to be their prison.

A day after the couple, from São Paulo, Brazil, boarded, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order for all cruise ships. On the same day, Royal Caribbean cancelled all its operations around the world. In just 24 hours, the coronavirus pandemic had upended their lives.

“This was the first day,” Mr Saldanha, a 31-year-old DJ, told the BBC. “It was a shocking surprise. This was not the plan. It was a nightmare.”

More than two months later, Mr Saldanha and his 29-year-old fiancée remain stranded at sea, albeit on a different cruise ship. They desperately want to go home but to their frustration, they, like tens of thousands of other cruise-crew members, have been unable to do so.

While cruise passengers were gradually repatriated through March and April, many crew members stayed behind. Cruise operations were initially paused for 30 days – ample time, it seemed, for the pandemic to blow over. The pandemic did no such thing, leaving crew members in limbo as 30 days turned into 40, 50, 60 and more.

The CDC extended its no-sail order and countries, concerned about the spread of the coronavirus, shut down their ports to cruise ships.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, there are now an estimated 54,200 crew members on board 85 cruise ships in US waters, the US Coast Guard told the BBC. Many more are stranded at sea elsewhere. In an article on 17 May, the Miami Herald newspaper put the number at more than 100,000 around the world.

Royal Caribbean, a US-based company, says it has arranged for British crew members to be flown home from Miami. A chartered plane carrying Royal Caribbean staff landed at Heathrow Airport on Tuesday afternoon.

But given the numbers, bringing everyone home has proved logistically challenging for cruise firms. US operators must abide by strict CDC health requirements for repatriating crew on special charter flights.

Their ability to uphold that responsibility has been called into question by crew in recent weeks. The recent deaths of several crew members has deepened the sense of unease.

Last month, a crew member went overboard from Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas ship. The company told the BBC it was “assisting authorities with their investigation”, but did not confirm the person had died.

More recently another firm, Princess Cruises, said a Ukrainian crew member had died after apparently jumping from the Regal Princess near the Netherlands.

One Canadian crew member says the deaths have heightened anxiety on board Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, where protests erupted last week. The 36-year-old, who does not wish to be named, says “the atmosphere was very tense”.

“I personally didn’t go out much. I didn’t want to be involved with it because people were quite angry,” the Canadian crew member told the BBC.

Hundreds of protesters gathered on the deck, where they hung banners bearing aggrieved messages. One, draped over the entrance to the swimming pool, read: “How many more suicides do we need?”

No suicides have been confirmed by Royal Caribbean or any other cruise-ship operators. Royal Caribbean says a confidential mental health helpline is available for crew to call 24 hours a day.

The spark for the protests, according to the Canadian crew member, was the postponement of a plan to repatriate staff. He says for some employees, repatriation arrangements had been delayed or changed several times, causing confusion and anger. On one ship, Romanian crew members held a hunger strike in protest.

Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime lawyer who is assisting crew, says the cruise operator has “calmed everyone down”, but adds that many were “still in the dark”.

“Legally, the repatriation of people is one of the most fundamental, long-standing maritime rights there are. You can’t keep people hostages on a ship. You can’t abandon them at sea,” Mr Walker told the BBC.

On Monday night, Denise Gruby, the mother of a British crew member, said her son had all but given up hope of being flown home. She said her son, 37-year-old entertainer Christopher Gruby, had opted to stay on board the Majesty of the Seas, which is due to depart from Miami to Southampton on Tuesday.

“They’ve just been abandoned. It must be an awful position to be in,” Ms Gruby told the BBC.

Other crew members have been more fortunate. A Romanian employee, who wished to remain anonymous, says Royal Caribbean paid for him to fly home on 22 February. He expected to be reunited with his boyfriend, who also worked for the company, a few months later. But the agonising wait goes on.

“My boyfriend is trapped on board the Majesty of the Seas. I can see that he’s not in the best mood, but I’m trying to cheer him up,” he says.

Royal Caribbean insists repatriation plans are now in motion.

“So far, we have successfully repatriated over 16,000 crew members, and we are working with governments and health authorities around the world on our plans. We appreciate our crews’ patience and understanding in this ever-changing global situation,” the company says.

But as crew await repatriation, some are not being paid. Those on Royal Caribbean ships are receiving a goodwill payment, amounting to $13 (£10.60) a day, employees say. For Mr Saldanha, though, it is not enough.

“After the 25 April, we stopped getting paid in full,” Mr Saldanha says. “We are consuming food and drink on the ship. So we think, maybe, the company is earning its money back. Perhaps even making a profit.”

On top of the financial burden, the desperation of being cooped up on an empty cruise ship has taken its toll on Mr Saldanha and his fiancée. For 21 days, they were kept in quarantine on the Celebrity Infinity ship, confined to a small cabin.

“We had a window, but we didn’t have access to the fresh air. We stayed there for 21 days, against our will. We tried desperately for help,” Mr Saldanha says.

Last week, the couple were transferred to the Celebrity Reflection, where they feel more comfortable. Yet, they are still unsure when Royal Caribbean will repatriate them.

Mr Saldanha says there are plans to fly Brazilian crew home from Barbados in May – but he’s not keen on the idea because similar attempts have been cancelled in the past. “They’ve already done this five times,” he notes.

Instead, Mr Saldanha wants the Brazilian government to make arrangements to bring them home.

“We are here against our will. My fiancée and I are hostages. We need to be rescued,” he says.

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Trudeau announces ban on assault-style weapons

Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced a long-promised ban on assault-style weapons following the country’s worst gun massacre in April.

New rules would make it illegal to sell, transport, import or use 1,500 varieties of assault weapons.

The ban is effective immediately but there will be a two-year amnesty period for law-abiding gun owners to comply.

Mr Trudeau also said he would introduce legislation, which has yet to pass, to offer a buy-back programme.

Unlike the US, gun ownership is not enshrined in Canada’s constitution, but gun ownership is still popular, especially in rural parts of the country.

Mr Trudeau made a point of saying that most gun owners are law-abiding citizens, but argued that assault-weapons serve no beneficial purpose.

“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only — only to kill the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time,” he said in a press conference on Friday.

“You don’t need an AR-15 to bring down a deer.”

The call to ban assault weapons was heightened after a number of high-profile shootings — in 2017, at a mosque in Quebec, in 2018 on a commercial street in Toronto and most recently, in a rampage across the province of Nova Scotia that became the deadliest shooting in Canada’s history.

Mr Trudeau campaigned on the ban ahead of last November’s election, and he said he was planning on introducing the ban in March, but it was delayed because of coronavirus.

His government had already expanded background check requirements and made it tougher to transport handguns, prior to November’s election.

More than 80,000 of these weapons are registered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The government is able to ban the weapons immediately through current regulation, but a buy-back programme would require multi-party support in parliament and would likely cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

The ban is controversial politically. A petition against the ban started by Conservative MP Glen Motz in December has more than 175,000 e-signatures.

Many of the weapons used in violent crime in Canada were not obtained legally, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said Mr Trudeau would do better to focus on stopping guns from coming across the boarder than on banning law-abiding gun owners.

The Globe and Mail reported that leaked documents show the buy-back programme would be voluntary, and licensed owners would have their guns grandfathered. Mr Trudeau had previously promised the programme would be mandatory.

On Friday, Mr Trudeau would not confirm whether buy-backs would be voluntary, but reiterated the buy-back programme would have to be supported by other parties, and be fair to everyone.

“The next steps need to be ironed out,” he said.

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Australia urges G20 action on wildlife wet markets

The Australian government is calling for the G20 countries to take action on wildlife wet markets, calling them a “biosecurity and human health risk”.

Australia is not yet calling for a ban – but says its own advisers believe they may need to be “phased out”.

“Wet markets” are marketplaces that sell fresh food such as meat and fish.

But some also sell wildlife – and it’s thought the coronavirus may have emerged at a wet market in Wuhan that sold live, “exotic” animals.

The Huanan market in Wuhan reportedly offered a range of animals including foxes, wolf cubs, civets, turtles, and snakes.

What did Australia say?

The Australian government called for an investigation into wildlife wet markets after a meeting of G20 agriculture ministers.

Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, agriculture minister David Littleproud said he was not targeting all food markets.

“A wet market, like the Sydney fish market, is perfectly safe,” he said.

“But when you add wildlife, live wildlife, exotic wildlife – that opens up human risk and biosecurity risk to the extent we have seen.

“And in fact, China themselves reported this to the World Organisation for Animal Health, that that was the cause of Covid-19.”

Mr Littleproud said he wanted to “get the science” first, but said: “Even our chief veterinary officer is telling us that he believes they [wildlife wet markets] may need to be phased out.”

What is the risk of wildlife wet markets?

The exact origin of the new coronavirus is not known, but the evidence suggests it came from an animal.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, Covid-19 is a “close relative” of other viruses found in horseshoe bats.

So the virus could have passed from bat to human, or via an “intermediate host” – one theory is bat, to pangolin, to human.

The Sars coronavirus is thought to have emerged in bats before passing to civets and then humans. The Mers coronavirus passed from camels to humans, after probably emerging in bats.

What has China done so far?

In January, China issued a temporary ban in the trade in wild animals, as it did during the Sars outbreak.

A month later, the government “thoroughly banned the illegal trading of wildlife” and “eliminated the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health”.

But since then, a number of reports have said wildlife is still being sold in markets in China and elsewhere.

More recently, the head of the World Health Organization said all governments must “rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food”.

WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “When these markets are allowed to reopen, it should only be on the condition that they conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards.”

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FirstBank hits pause button on emergency business loans after a flood of applications – The Denver Post

Michael Reaves, The Denver PostFirstBank opens it’s new corporate headquarters in Lakewood after nearly two years of construction and renovations on June 23, 2016.

Facing a crushing volume of emergency loan requests, FirstBank has temporarily stopped taking applications under the Paycheck Protection Program through the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The PPP loans are designed to serve as a lifeline for small businesses with fewer than 500 employees until the economy reopens. A survey from the National Federation of Independent Business found that 70% of small businesses had applied or attempted to apply for some type of emergency aid. Of those that didn’t, half planned to do so.

PPP loans officially launched April 3, and FirstBank waited for additional guidance from the Treasury Department and the SBA before accepting applications on Monday. Within 72 hours, it had received more than 15,000 applications for around $2 billion in funding.

To handle the demand, FirstBank said it pulled in hundreds of employees to work split shifts around the clock. Despite that, it has processed only $600 million of the $2 billion in requests. A stop was needed to allow it to catch up.

“We are having to temporarily pause on any new SBA PPP applications to focus on closing and funding the current, approved loans,” the bank said in a statement. The plan is to reopen the application portal by midday on April 14, said Chandra Brin, the bank’s public relations manager.

FirstBank, with about 100 branches in Colorado, ranks second in deposits in the state after Wells Fargo. Over the past 30 years, it has issued $600 million in SBA loans. Just this week, it has received more than three times that volume.

Wells Fargo had to shut down PPP lending after quickly reaching growth limits mandated by regulatory orders that followed its fake account creation scandal. The Federal Reserve stepped in to grant Wells Fargo more leeway to make emergency loans.

Having the state’s two largest banks offline or constrained in new applications could complicate things for the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers who were allowed to start applying for loans on Friday, April 10.

“Banks are working as hard as they can and as fast as they can, into the night and over the weekend, to process and disburse PPP funds to businesses. This is an unprecedented time for bankers and borrowers,” said Amanda Averch, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Bankers Association.

The Paycheck Protection Program received an allocation of $349 billion under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, an unprecedented amount. But the program is first-come, first-served, and struggling small-business owners, fearful the money would run out, rushed to apply with their banks.

Congress is working on adding another $250 billion to the PPP, but that effort has bogged down. Some industry groups argue even more is needed. The U.S. Travel Association pleaded for a $600 billion allocation on Friday, as well as a lifting of the requirement that to be forgiven, 70% of the loans be used for payroll expenses.

With traveling spending down 85%, the association estimates that up to 15.8 million jobs in the industry are at risk. The question for many now isn’t about keeping workers on the payroll, but surviving long enough to be around to hire workers back once restrictions lift.

“The CARES Act was an ambitious step, but now the urgent problem is that assistance is simply not getting where it needs to go,” said U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow in a statement. “Major adjustments and more aid are needed immediately to support small businesses, including local non-profits, that are essential engines of the travel economy.”

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Airlines call on government to underwrite industry charges

Airlines have called on the government to underwrite hundreds of millions of pounds in regulatory and air traffic control charges as they seek to navigate through the escalating coronavirus crisis.

Sky News has obtained a letter sent on Wednesday by Airlines UK, the industry’s main lobbying group, to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, in which it calls again for a package of emergency support.

In the letter, Airlines UK urged the government to suspend – rather than defer – air passenger duty payments for six months following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It called for the waiving of air traffic control (ATC) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) charges for the whole of 2020, “with payments guaranteed by [the government] so National Air Traffic Services and the CAA can continue to be paid and function as critical enablers of the wider UK aviation landscape, both through the current crisis and then into the recovery phase”.

Airlines UK, whose members include British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic, also repeated a call for a moratorium on all litigated claims under EC261, the European law which requires airlines to refund passengers for cancelled flights.

“Carriers should also be permitted to issue vouchers instead of refunds and, should refunds be required, carriers should be permitted to defer payment until the crisis period is over and as defined by air traffic volumes, rather than time period,” the group said.

The letter from Airlines UK comes a day after Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, told British carriers that they could expect to engage in discussions with the government about “bespoke” aid “only as a last resort”.

Mr Sunak said airlines would need to exhaust the resources of their existing shareholders and financial stakeholders before the government would consider an injection of debt or equity.

Tim Alderslade, Airlines UK chief executive, said: “A million people work in UK aviation all over the country.

“It is one of the UK’s international assets, as the third largest globally behind only China and the US.

“We welcome that the Government will enter into negotiations with individual airlines, but we also want to work with them on policy actions that could be taken now which could also have a considerable impact.”

Mr Alderslade added that airlines welcomed Mr Sunak’s confirmation that the government would be prepared to enter talks with individual airlines about “bespoke support”.

The latest industry data suggests that aggregate passenger revenues will fall globally by $252bn as a result of the virus outbreak.

Markets with severe travel restrictions now cover 98% of global passenger revenues, Airlines UK said.

Mr Alderslade also urged Mr Shapps to provide more detail about the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme unveiled by Mr Sunak late last week.

“Please can we urge that further clarity is provided as soon as possible owing to the severe cash pressures that airlines are facing,” he wrote.

Mr Sunak’s comments held open the possibility that the government could take a stake in some British airlines, but underlined the remoteness of such a prospect.

The Treasury is keen for major airline shareholders such as easyJet’s Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson to inject further sums before they can turn to the government for more support.

Mr Sunak also hinted that the Treasury was close to unveiling a further credit facility for companies which do not have an investment grade credit rating.

“I have listened to feedback that suggests some companies including airlines are uncertain whether they can access this Facility – which is for companies rated as investment grade or equivalent,” he wrote.

“I am in discussions to resolve this uncertainty and further announcements will be made shortly.”

Sky News revealed last week that Rothschild, the investment bank, had been asked to advise ministers on a package of measures, and that one option could include direct taxpayer investments in airline shares.

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