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‘Sitting in jail for everyone else’ – a Hong Kong democrat’s sacrifice

‘Sitting in jail for everyone else’ – a Hong Kong democrat’s sacrifice

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'Sitting in jail for everyone else' - a Hong Kong democrat's sacrifice

Owen Chow has spent most of the past four years in prison and in repeated court hearings, fighting charges carrying a possible life sentence – a far cry from his days as a nursing student and one of thousands supporting Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms.

The 27-year-old is one of 14 convicted on Thursday of conspiracy to commit subversion. Two were acquitted and 31 have pleaded guilty in the landmark national security case, which has drawn international criticism of the financial hub.

Once one of Asia’s most liberal cities, China-ruled Hong Kong is experiencing a years-long crackdown on dissent under China-imposed security laws that have silenced liberal voices, unnerved investors and triggered a wave of emigration.

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council has said the laws will “secure Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability” as well as safeguard the interests of overseas investors, democracy and freedom.

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Chow and the 13 others were found guilty by three judges of conspiracy to commit subversion for holding an unofficial primary election in 2020 that was deemed by Hong Kong authorities as a plot to paralyse the government and “subvert state power”.

The verdict caps a marathon legal process following the arrest of Chow and 46 other leading democrats in early 2021 in a citywide police raid.

Chow’s activism began when mass protests broke out in 2019 over a planned China extradition bill. In a separate trial he was sentenced in March to more than five years in prison for occupying the city’s legislature during those protests.

In several prison visits over three years, Chow told Reuters he had done no more than fight for democratic freedoms legally enshrined when his home city was handed over to China from the British in 1997.

“Democracy is the future of Hong Kong. This won’t change regardless of those in power,” he said on a phone handset through a pane of glass in a room in a high-security prison.

Chow also talked about his time in prison, his philosophy and finding love after meeting his girlfriend Amanda while briefly out on bail.

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In 2019, Chow was a student trying to finish his degree in nursing.

In an interview with Reuters before he was arrested in 2021, Chow said he decided to become a nurse when his father died. Growing up with domestic violence, he said he put aside his hatred and began caring for him when he fell terminally ill.

“Since then I wanted to take care of others,” said Chow, who suspended his nursing degree to run in the primary election.

‘PATIENCE’

When the massive pro-democracy protests broke out, Chow said he felt compelled towards activism. He gained a reputation as a young firebrand who also railed against the more cautious approach of elder democrats in their demands of Beijing.

He is one of nearly 3,000 people who have been prosecuted for offences related to the city’s pro-democracy protests since 2019. More than 290 people have been arrested under national security laws.

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In what UN human rights experts and the US say is a departure from established common law practices, Chow and other democrats were denied a jury trial, and 32 of the 47 have languished for over 1,000 days in detention without bail.

The Hong Kong government has said in a statement that all defendants have the right to a fair trial by an independent judiciary.

Many democrats have struggled through the process.

Some became ill, while the high cost of hiring barristers for years has depleted life savings. Many have lost their livelihoods.

Chow – crew cut and cleanly shaven in a short-sleeved, russet prisoner’s uniform, shorts and sandals – said he tried to remain physically and mentally strong through exercise, meditation, study and writing letters while in solitary confinement.

He reads six books per month including novels and works on politics, philosophy and Buddhism.

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“I have gained more patience, perseverance, and love… and lost much anger and arrogance,” he said.

Tattooed on his right arm is a six-syllable Sanskrit Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”, inked in early 2021, alluding in part to a spirit of enlightenment.

In March this year, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislature unanimously passed a further set of national security laws, giving authorities more power to clamp down on offences including espionage, sedition and theft of state secrets.

Chow told the court he considered withdrawing from the election after studying the security laws imposed by Beijing in 2020.

“But I found that I simply could not make the decision to withdraw from the (primary) election. I felt that I could not leave the masses,” he said.

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In their judgement on Thursday, the three judges wrote that they had “no doubt” that Chow’s objective for taking part in the election was to “undermine, destroy or overthrow the existing political system”.

Chow said he had a hard time adapting to prison life at first, and had once cried himself to sleep before the closely watched trial started, due to the pressure he faced.

“If we accept that adversity is inevitable and treat adversity as a rare chance to train ourselves, to improve ourselves, we can all take things in our stride.”

LOVE AND SACRIFICE

Chow met Amanda, a reporter who interviewed him, in 2021 and their relationship blossomed despite his time in detention.

“He’s doing something he thinks is right. I also think he’s doing the right thing. I don’t want him to face these things alone,” Amanda, who declined to give her last name given the sensitivity of the matter, told Reuters.

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Now based in Britain studying for a master’s degree, she said they mostly communicate through letters. They also read some books together including “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday.

On Valentine’s Day, Chow surprised her with a bouquet of tulips that arrived at her house in London.

“I want to face the challenges of the world, and on the inside, with you together,” Chow wrote Amanda in a letter seen by Reuters.

Chow spends most of his time in solitary confinement in a narrow cell in a long corridor with dozens of other cells.

He begins most days in Stanley Prison by climbing onto his small desk to peer through the iron bars at the sea and a stretch of wild coastline. He is allowed two half-hour visits per month.

After being sentenced in the 2019 case, prison authorities now give Chow a pile of brown sheets of paper that he folds into envelopes with a tub of white glue. He’s asked to fold 600 envelopes per week, which he does while listening to the radio when he’s tired of reading.

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Once known as one of Hong Kong’s most radical young democrats, he says his emotions have tempered over the years, and he takes a longer, more philosophical view – based around the Buddhist concepts of repentance, reflection and acceptance.

“Go with the flow,” he said. “Hatred won’t help you achieve democracy in any place.”

Despite the likelihood of another long jail term, he says it is worth it. After serving his sentence, he says he wants to study abroad.

“It’s a sacrifice for Hong Kong. It’s as if I’m sitting in jail for everyone else and suffering on behalf of others,
“What I’ve gained is more than I’ve lost.”

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Trump holds first rally after assassination attempt with his new running mate, Vance, by his side

Trump holds first rally after assassination attempt with his new running mate, Vance, by his side

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Trump holds first rally after assassination attempt with his new running mate, Vance, by his side

Donald Trump held his first campaign rally since he survived an assassination attempt Saturday, returning to the battleground state of Michigan alongside his newly named running mate.

“It was exactly one week ago, even to the hour, even to the minute,” Trump told the crowd, reflecting on the July 13 shooting in Pennsylvania that left him with a bloodied ear, killed one of his supporters and left two others injured.

“I stand before you only by the grace of almighty God,” he said, the white gauze on his ear now replaced by a skin-colored bandage. “I shouldn’t be here right now,” he went on.

Trump was joined by Ohio Sen. JD Vance at the pair’s first event together since they became the GOP’s nominees at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

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“I find it hard to believe that a week ago, an assassin tried to take Donald Trump’s life, and now we have got a hell of a crowd in Michigan to welcome him back on the campaign trail,” Vance said before Trump’s arrival.

Michigan is one of the handful of crucial swing states expected to determine the outcome of November’s presidential election. Trump narrowly won the state by just over 10,000 votes in 2016, but Democrat Joe Biden flipped it back in 2020, winning by a margin of 154,000 votes on his way to the presidency.

After appearing uncharacteristically subdued and emotional during the Republican convention, Trump returned to his usual rally mode, insulting his Democratic rivals, repeating his lies about the 2020 election, and peppering his address with jokes that sparked laughter from an enthusiastic audience.

At one point, Trump glanced at a screen showing him from an unusual angle and joked about his combover.

“That’s a severe sucker. What’s with that one?” he said. “I apologize. Man! I looked up there, I said, ‘Whoa!’ That’s like a work of art!”

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At another point, as he invited a supporter on stage, he quipped, “He does not carry guns!”

But Trump also talked about the shooting, acting out how he’d turned his head to look up at a chart of southern border crossings projected on a giant screen, narrowly dodging the bullet that hit his ear.

“I owe immigration my life,” he said.

Hours before he took the stage, Trump’s supporters crowded the streets of downtown Grand Rapids in anticipation of the former president’s remarks. Supporters began lining up Friday morning, and by Saturday afternoon, the line stretched close to a mile from the entrance of the 12,000-seat Van Andel Arena.

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Many wore shirts featuring the image of Trump, on stage, after he was shot, pumping his fist in the air, along with the usual red “Make America Great Again” hats.

Mike Gaydos, who traveled from Indiana with his three sons to attend the rally, said he didn’t consider himself a “huge” Trump supporter in the past but wanted to show support for the former president following his attempted assassination.

“We can’t allow something like that to collar us,” he said. “Bravery is what I thought he showed that day, and I want to show my sons about bravery as well.”

Numerous streets, closed as an additional security precaution, were dotted with vendors selling food and apparel. Among them was a vendor from North Carolina who said he had spent the night making shirts featuring “Trump Vance ’24.”

Downtown Grand Rapids also saw a significant police presence, with officers stationed on nearly every block, while others patrolled on horseback and bicycles. The heightened security outside the venue created a tense environment, with some attendees mentioning that drones overhead had made them nervous. The event was held indoors, which makes it easier to secure.

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Attendees were required to pass through a metal detector upon entering the arena, yet the presence of security inside appeared consistent with previous events.

“This is the tightest I’ve ever seen the security,” said Renee White, who said that she’s been to 33 of Trump’s rallies. “We usually can bring in some small bags, but today I had to just leave stuff out there.”

White had been seated behind the podium at the rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, where the gunman opened fire from a nearby rooftop. She described the shooting as “surreal” but said that it wouldn’t stop her from going to his rallies.

“If I’m going to be taken out, at least I’m doing something I love to do, right?” she said. On Saturday, she was again seated behind Trump, almost in the same spot as she had been in Butler.

Trump’s choice of Vance was aimed, in part, at helping him win support from Rust Belt voters in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio who helped Trump notch his surprise 2016 victory. Vance specifically mentioned those places during his acceptance speech at the convention, stressing his roots growing up poor in small-town Ohio and pledging not to forget working-class people whose “jobs were sent overseas and children were sent to war.”

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Democrats have dominated recent elections in Michigan, but Republicans now see an opening in the state, especially as Democrats remain divided about whether Biden should drop out of the race.

Biden has insisted he is not quitting, and has attempted to turn the focus back towards Trump, saying Friday that Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention showcased a “dark vision for the future.”

Trump on Saturday polled the crowd on who they’d like to see as his opponent, with cheers for Biden and loud boos when Trump asked about Vice President Kamala Harris.

Trump and his team have tried to cast Democrats’ efforts to replace Biden as a “coup” in what appears to be part of a larger effort to try to distract from Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election after he refused to accept the results, as well as the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters.

“At this very moment, Democrat Party bosses are frantically trying to overthrow the results of their own party’s primaries to dump Crooked Joe Biden from the ballot,” Trump charged.

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Later, he pushed back against efforts to cast him as a threat to democracy and an extremist, even as he has vowed mass deportations and threatened retribution against his political enemies.

“They keep saying, ’He’s a threat to democracy…’ Last week I took a bullet for democracy,” he said to rousing cheers.

Trump also again tried to distance himself from the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, a policy and personnel plan for a second Trump term that was crafted by a host of former administration officials.

Trump blasted the project, which has become a centerpiece of Biden’s campaign, as “severe right” and “seriously extreme,” just like the ”radical left.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” he insisted.

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Biden’s campaign responded with a statement that noted Trump’s speech accepting the GOP nomination, in which he urged unity and said he was “running to be president for all of America, not half of America.”

“We were promised a new Donald Trump who would unite the country — instead all we saw tonight was the same Donald Americans keep rejecting over and over,” said Biden-Harris spokesperson Ammar Moussa. “He’s peddling the same lies, running the same campaign of revenge and retribution, touting the same failed policies, and — as usual — focused only on himself.”

The 81-year-old Democratic incumbent, who appeared in Detroit this month, is currently isolating at his beach home in Delaware recovering from COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, a Democrat representing Grand Rapids, is among the growing number of lawmakers calling on Biden to exit the race after his disastrous performance at last month’s debate. 

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Biden plans to campaign again, as Democrats meet on nomination process

Biden plans to campaign again, as Democrats meet on nomination process

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Biden plans to campaign again, as Democrats meet on nomination process

US President Joe Biden will return to the campaign trail next week, the head of his re-election campaign said on Friday, even as the Democratic incumbent faces growing calls to leave the race.

“He is absolutely in it,” Biden campaign chairwoman Jen O’Malley Dillon told MSNBC in an interview, despite several Democratic officials telling Reuters earlier Friday that Biden’s upcoming campaign events had been canceled.

A Democratic Party committee will meet on Friday to discuss a virtual voting process, opens new tab to bring forward the official nomination of the 81-year-old to before the party’s in-person convention, starting Aug. 19 in Chicago.

It is unclear how the nominating process would unfold if Biden were to abandon his reelection bid amid questions about his mental sharpness.

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Biden has been isolating since he tested positive for COVID this week. O’Malley Dillon’s remarks come after several reports that Biden is now taking calls to step aside seriously. Several Democratic officials think an exit is a matter of time, Reuters reported on Thursday, opens new tab.

Biden’s reflection is an about-face, as he has insisted for weeks that he would stay in the race despite calls from heavyweights in his party to cede his position at the top of the Democratic ticket after a shaky June 27 debate performance against Trump.

Trump, 78, accepted the Republican Party’s nomination this week in Milwaukee, speaking before a rapt audience, opens new tab on Thursday.

Some Democrats have now begun openly advertising against Biden. Pass the Torch, a group that wants Biden to step down, has launched a TV ad to air in Washington and Rehoboth, Delaware, where Biden frequently vacations, and features Democratic voters from Pennsylvania urging Biden to “pass the torch.”

Former US President Donald Trump on Thursday formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president.

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For a party already divided, the virtual vote is another point of controversy.

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Mounting home demolitions and settler attacks plunge a Palestinian village into crisis

Mounting home demolitions and settler attacks plunge a Palestinian village into crisis

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Mounting home demolitions and settler attacks plunge a Palestinian village into crisis

 First came the Israeli military bulldozers, which tore down a quarter of the homes in the West Bank Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair. Then came the settler attacks.

In the aftermath, dozens of people were left homeless and without consistent access to water and electricity. Several were injured from pepper spray and sticks, and the village’s water pipe was cut — all, they said, as Israeli soldiers looked on.

”Where shall I go?” said Yasser Hathaleen, sitting near the rubble of his family’s homes, exposed to the blazing heat of summer with little to protect him. “To whom do I complain? I want a law to protect me. Where are the people of law?”

Bedouin communities in the West Bank face a double threat of rampant, unpunished Israeli settler violence and a frenzy of state-backed demolitions. Together, the two are pushing a growing number of Bedouin from their land and making any eventual independent Palestinian state a more distant reality, rights groups say.

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The threats have intensified since the start of the war in Gaza, as settler violence surges across the West Bank — even as Israel faces growing international pressure to clamp down. Settler advocates hold key Israeli Cabinet positions that grant them important say over the West Bank, giving settlers greater control over their destiny in the territory.

Settler violence and demolitions are nothing new in Umm Al-Khair, founded in the 1950s by traditionally nomadic people known as Bedouin, who settled there just after being uprooted from the Negev desert during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

Two decades later, Umm Al-Khair fell under Israeli security control when Israel captured the West Bank. Though Palestinians seek the area as the heart of a future independent state, Israel has established a rash of settlements across the territory, viewed by the international community as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Settler attacks, residents say, began in the 1980s, after Israel built the settlement of Carmel just meters away from Umm Al-Khair. Today, Carmel’s large houses and lush gardens sit across a barbed-wire fence from the village, whose pipes are not connected to the Israeli water network and whose homes of corrugated tin bake in the summer sun.

Settler attacks were sporadic but not debilitating, residents said, until settlers established an unauthorized outpost, called “Roots Farm,” on a nearby hilltop.

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“Since then, this farm, their only goal is to target the community, to violate the people’s lives and to attack and insult people on a daily basis,” said 21-year-old Tariq Hathaleen, an English teacher in Umm Al-Khair. Most villagers bear the last name Hathaleen, all descendants of the village founder.

On July 1, in a particularly brutal recent attack described by residents and activists, settlers injured about 10 people in the village with sticks and pepper spray that made people’s eyes water.

“There were so many women on the ground, lying on the earth, struggling to breathe,” said Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist who was in Umm Al-Khair that day.

Videos taken by Palestinians in the village and sent to The Associated Press showed a man residents identified as the leader of the outpost clutching a rifle as he strides past Israeli soldiers into the village.

The military told AP the forces were there “to maintain the security of all residents of the area, and to act to prevent terrorism and activities that endanger the citizens of the State of Israel.”

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In another video, taken July 3 by an Umm Al-Khair resident, young settlers are seen tampering with the village’s water pipes as soldiers look on. The military said soldiers helped repair the pipe soon after.

But residents said the pipe was damaged by settlers again days later, showing AP video of a settler near the freshly damaged pipe. When sent the video, the military told AP the pipe was damaged by erosion, not settlers.

To Tariq Hathaleen, the settlers and the state are working toward the same goal: expelling his community from their lands. Umm Al-Khair residents say they have lived there since they were expelled from the Negev during what’s referred to as the “Nakba” — Arabic for catastrophe — when roughly 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of what today is Israel.

The residents showed AP handwritten contracts appearing to show land sales from neighboring Palestinian towns to the founder of the village, Tariq’s grandfather, during the period when Jordan controlled the West Bank.

COGAT, the Israeli military body coordinating humanitarian aid efforts, did not respond to a request for comment on land ownership in the area.

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“There’s no legal pretext for soldiers to remove us from our land. So what the settlers do is they make our life the most hard life, so we eventually leave on our own,” said Tariq Hathaleen.

Outposts and settlements are growing
As some settlers expand their network of unauthorized farming outposts atop West Bank hilltops — which rights groups say are the primary drivers of violence and displacement in the territory — others in Israel’s far-right government turbocharge settlement in the territory. In the last month alone, Israel’s government has legalized five formerly unauthorized settlements and made the largest land grab in the West Bank in three decades, declaring a wide swath of the territory state land.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the U.N. says settler violence across the West Bank has displaced 1,260 Palestinians, including 600 children, from their homes in Bedouin villages such as Umm Al-Khair.

The U.N. documented 1,000 settler attacks in the West Bank in the nine months since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, averaging four attacks a day. That’s double the daily average during the same period last year, according to AIDA, a coalition of nonprofits and other groups working in the territory. The violence has killed 10 people in total, including two children, and has injured 234 people, the group says.

With the rapid and easy establishment of farming outposts, rights groups say, settlers can expand their control of the territory through violence, effectively pushing the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state further from reach.

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Outposts are now “one of the primary methods employed by Israel to take over areas in the West Bank and to expel Palestinian communities,” said a July report from Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

The crisis in the West Bank has reached such heights that Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, the outgoing Israeli general overseeing the territory, used his farewell speech July 8 to denounce settler violence.

“Under the auspices of the war, and the desire for revenge, it sowed chaos and fear in Palestinian residents who did not pose any threat,” he said. He accused settler leaders of not doing enough to halt the violence.

Legality of structures is disputed
Naomi Kahn, head of the international division at settler organization Regavim, describes Umm Al-Khair as an “illegal squatters camp” on land that belongs to Israel.

Following the recent round of demolitions, the Israeli military told AP that the structures were illegal and that their construction had been carried out “in complete violation of the law.”

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Palestinians have long said that securing Israeli permission to build in the West Bank is nearly impossible.

“They knock down our homes, and then we rebuild,” shepherd Bilal Hathaleen said. “They come to knock them down again, so we will rebuild. We are not going anywhere.” 

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