For Some Chinese Migrants, Few Options in Xi’s China

 Lajas Blancas, Panama / Washington — With only a backpack, a portable tent and a small shoulder bag, Cong, a 47-year-old Chinese migrant, was one of more than a dozen migrants to step out of a narrow wooden boat on the stony shore of the Chucunaque River in Lajas Blancas, Panama.

The stop was one of dozens he had made over the past month, and it was where he met with VOA’s Mandarin Service on his journey toward the United States — a journey that began in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. Cong declined to provide his full name, citing security concerns.

As he walked across the shore under the hot sun, wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, black sports shorts and white Croc-like slippers, he limped slightly from a swollen ankle caused by a slip while crossing a river earlier in his journey.

Immigrants from China are the fastest-growing group of people making the long journey to the U.S. border. Navigating Panama’s treacherous Darien Gap, and risking death and disease, is a key part of that journey.

Like many others, Cong says he got a lot of information from online sources about how to make the trek, including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. After half a year of planning, he decided, “I must go.”

“When I came out, I decided it’s going to be worth it, even if I die on the way,” he said.

When VOA asked the former crepe store owner why he traveled thousands of miles to a country he had never visited before, he replied, “Freedom.”

“I want freedom,” he said.

Cong said there is no freedom in China, which made him depressed. He said his Douyin account had been banned several times for using sensitive keywords and criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Cong said his definition of freedom is that he doesn’t have to do what he doesn’t want to do, and that he can criticize the president.

China’s sluggish economy was another big reason why he decided to leave the country. Its stock market is at a five-year low, and the country has seen a decline in exports and imports. Last June, Cong had to close his crepe store for lack of customers.

“No one has money. There is no easy business,” he said. “Without foreign trade, it’s all domestic money changing hands. How can that create wealth?”

Cong is not alone in making the decision to make the trek to the U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that more than 37,000 Chinese migrants were detained at the U.S-Mexico border in 2023, nearly 10 times more than the previous year.

In the San Diego sector alone — stretching 100 kilometers inland from the Pacific Ocean — U.S. Border Patrol officials told a local television station this week they have made more than 140,000 arrests since October 1. They included about 20,000 people from China, a 500% increase over the same period a year earlier.

After crossing the border, the migrants surrender to the Border Patrol and declare their intention to seek asylum in the United States. They are processed and are often released within 72 hours. According to the Department of Justice, 55% of Chinese migrants were granted asylum last year.

Giuseppe Loprete, head of mission in Panama for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body that provides information for migrants crossing the Darien Gap, told Al Jazeera in an interview that the Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable due to the language barrier and a perception that they are wealthy.

Cong said he paid $700 to a tour guide he found on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for instructions to get to Acandí, Colombia. From there, he walked for three days in the rain forest. He paid another $25 for the boat ride on the Chucunaque River. But that is only a fraction of the expenses he has incurred on his journey of more than a month from Sichuan through Thailand, Turkey, Ecuador, Colombia and now Panama.

The number of individuals leaving China has surged since Xi took office in 2013. According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 700,000 Chinese sought asylum overseas between 2013 and 2021. That included more than 100,000 each year between 2019 and 2021, the last year for which UNHCR statistics are available.

The dramatic rise in Chinese migrants coming to the U.S. has raised national security concerns in America, with some questioning whether there are Chinese spies among them.

Republican Representative Mark Green, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, sounded an alarm about the wave of Chinese migrants entering the United States last June, claiming the majority are military-age men with known ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army.

Green and fellow Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Troy E. Nehls introduced the No Asylum for CCP Spies Act last year, which if passed, would prevent CCP members from seeking asylum in the U.S.

Border patrol agents encountered 5,717 single Chinese adults in January, more than twice as many as in any other January on record, CBP data shows. In December, that figure hit a record high of 7,581, while the total since January 2023 now stands at 64,979.

VOA Mandarin observed more Chinese men than women traveling alone.

With several thousand kilometers to go on his journey, Cong says few things are certain. He says he hopes to begin life in the U.S. by washing dishes in a restaurant after arriving at his final destination.

“Better to do all you can rather than floating along helplessly,” he said.

Calla Yu contributed to this report.

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With Back-to-Back Actions, Biden Spotlights China Data Security Threat

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration launched a series of actions against China in recent days, sustaining pressure against the United States’ key strategic rival even as it focuses on more urgent fronts, including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

In the span of one week, the administration announced an executive order to protect Americans’ personal data from foreign adversaries, including China; launched an investigation into potential security threats posed by connected vehicles that use Chinese technology; and placed sanctions on Chinese entities for supporting Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The actions taken by President Joe Biden stand in contrast to the months of warming ties following a November summit in California between him and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping — a meeting aimed to improve a bilateral relationship that had reached its lowest point in decades due to rivalry and mistrust.

Since the summit, diplomatic engagement has increased from both sides, including the resumption of military-to-military talks that were frozen after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan.

Restarting staff-level talks in early January was key to ensuring that the two sides avoided a major cross-strait incident during Taiwan’s election later in the month.

In January, Washington and Beijing also launched a working group designed to crack down on the flow of Chinese precursors used in the production of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs sold in the U.S., another sign of cooperation between the superpowers.

Ties improved to the point that Beijing marked the 45th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in January with a lavish banquet, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised that Chinese giant pandas, much loved by American zoo visitors, will return to U.S. by the end of the year.

So why the flurry of actions against China now?

National security issue

The White House sidestepped questions on the back-to-back timing of the measures.

Biden is “concerned about countries like China,” White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

“China is right now looking to flood the market here in the United States and around the world with vehicles equipped with advanced technology from countries of concern,” she said. “That’s a national security issue that we take very seriously.”

An administration official told reporters during a briefing that the U.S. Commerce Department probe launched Thursday to ensure that Chinese cars driving on American roads do not undermine U.S. national security, is “complementary and distinct” from the executive order to protect Americans’ personal data from China and other foreign adversaries. The latter order blocks bulk transfers of data such as geolocation, biometric, health and financial information to “countries of concern.”

By putting the two announcements next to each other, the administration is trying to communicate that they’re taking data security seriously, said Emily Benson, director of the Project on Trade and Technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The anticipated outcome there was to signal that the connected vehicle rules are actually a national security instrument,” Benson told VOA.

The U.S. plans to engage partners and allies following the investigation into the threat posed by Chinese vehicles. There’s a “growing sense of the security risks” and “really strong interest in the measures that we might take and the results of the investigation,” an administration official told VOA during a briefing Wednesday.

Biden himself warned of the dangers.

“Connected vehicles from China could collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People’s Republic of China,” the president said in a statement.

National security concerns aside, the administration is also anticipating an overcapacity of more affordable Chinese vehicles entering the American marketplace, especially as Chinese auto producers such as BYD set up manufacturing facilities in Mexico that would afford them more favorable tariff rates under USMCA, the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“That has created a lot of fear in Washington about the longevity of the U.S. automobile sector,” Benson said.

She added that the executive actions taken this week are “easier and more appropriate” than the effort to ban TikTok. The social media app is used by more than 100 million Americans despite allegations that its China-based parent company, ByteDance, could collect sensitive user data.

While the federal government and dozens of individual states have barred TikTok from government devices, Congress has yet to enact legislation to ban Americans from using the application on their personal devices.

The app is highly popular, especially among young people, prompting Biden’s campaign to join the platform despite the administration’s previously firm stance on its potential national security concerns.

Balanced approach

As Biden gears up for his reelection campaign, his administration is keen to project the image that they are taking the threat of China seriously, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

“Balancing has always been the theme of his policy,” Sun told VOA. “When there is positive engagement, there’s also the punitive gestures.”

Without such gestures, the administration would be vulnerable to criticism that it is ignoring the fact that Beijing remains a source of significant national security challenges for the United States, she said.

“The administration has to demonstrate that it is extremely clear-eyed about the limitation of engagement but also the desirability of the engagement,” she said. “Engagement does not mean there’s no problem.”

Washington also announced sanctions against Chinese firms last week as part of a measure marking the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The trade penalties targeted entities in Russia and in countries viewed by the administration as supporting Moscow’s war effort.

The actions against China followed a meeting between Wang and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier in February.

In the meeting, Wang warned Blinken that turning de-risking “into ‘de-China,’ building ‘small courtyards and high walls,’ and engaging in ‘decoupling from China’ will eventually backfire on the United States.”

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Freedom House: Civil Liberties Decline Globally for 18th Year

washington — Civil liberties declined globally for the 18th consecutive year in 2023, with conflict and flawed elections the biggest factors, a new report has found.  

Political rights and civil liberties deteriorated for more than one-fifth of the population, the non-profit group Freedom House found. And only one-fifth of the 210 countries and territories the research group analyzed was found to be “free.” 

Released on Thursday, the Freedom in the World report assesses political rights and civil liberties, then ranks countries or territories as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”  

Researchers looked at issues including how effectively governments work, political pluralism, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and whether marginalized groups are given full rights.  

Much of the decline in 2023 is attributed to cases of election manipulation, according to report co-author Cathryn Grothe. The report found electoral issues in almost half of the countries designated as being in decline.  

“While the findings of the report are certainly grim, they are coming at an especially important moment in time,” said Grothe, noting 2024 will be a critical year with national elections scheduled in about 40 countries.  

Report finds manipulation, intimidation

Grothe told VOA her group’s research found widespread election manipulation and intimidation before, during and after elections.  

She noted that “billions of people around the world are going to be heading to the polls.”  

The report highlighted Cambodia, Guatemala, Poland, Turkey and Zimbabwe as places that experienced attempts to control, hinder or interfere with elections. 

And in Ecuador, Nigeria, and Taiwan, elections were disrupted by either violence or interference by foreign regimes.  

In Guatemala, however, attempts to block a peaceful transfer of power failed. Bernardo Arevalo assumed office in early 2024 after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Congress must accept his inauguration, despite its previous refusal to acknowledge elected members.  

Group watches US races

The United States — which Freedom House ranks as free — is among the countries holding significant elections.  

Grothe said that Freedom House is paying attention to issues in the U.S., including congressional dysfunction such as delayed appropriations bills and internal disputes over the speakership of the House of Representatives.  

Freedom House is also watching closely for intimidation and threats of violence as tools of political influence in the U.S, especially during the last few months before the election.  

Reports of threats against elected officials and local election administrators have “proliferated “in recent years, Grothe said. 

“When a democracy such as the U.S., those with kind of large influence on the world stage grow weaker internally, it makes it a lot more difficult to counter this kind of global authoritarianism,” said Grothe. “It makes it very imperative that we at home in the United States need to address our own domestic shortcomings.” 

The Freedom House report includes several recommendations, including calls for governments and other actors in civil society to “immediately” and “publicly” condemn manipulation efforts, coups and refusals to honor electoral outcomes.

“Democracies need to commit to free and fair elections, both at home and need to stand up for the same abroad,” said Grothe. 

The biggest decline in freedom was registered in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory which sparked conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

The region saw an overall 40-point reduction. The decline follows a mass displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians amid fighting in September 2023. 

The second-largest point reduction came in Niger, where military forces ousted the government in July 2023.  

Conflict resulted in major declines in other areas too. Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to affect basic rights for those in occupied parts of Ukraine and brings a rise in repression inside Russia. The report also notes the effect on civilians of the Israel-Hamas conflict and Myanmar military rule. 

Other countries saw improvements. Fiji gained seven points due to a “smooth” transfer of power after elections in 2022. And Nepal is recognized in the report for amendments to its Citizenship Act, which allowed 400,000 stateless people born in the country to receive citizenship.  

While the past year faced obstacles, Grothe said there are “beacons of hope” in the countries pushing back against those declines.  

“It’s important to remember that people in every sort of political environment, from the most-free countries to the most repressive, are continuing to fight to uphold their rights, their dignity and this offers some kind of level of hope even in these very kind of discouraging times.” 

She added that the report should serve as a reminder of the stakes for democracy and as a call to reverse the decline of global freedoms.  

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Gang Violence Flares Up in Haiti as Prime Minister Visits Kenya

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A wave of panic swept through downtown Port-au-Prince on Thursday, with an outburst of violence marked by heavy gunfire and improvised barricades. A gang leader took responsibility saying it was a demonstration against the authorities.  

The violent events took place on the same day Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry arrived in Kenya for talks on the deployment of a multinational security mission in the country backed by the United Nations. 

By midday, most institutions and businesses in the city had closed and thousands of people commuted home in public transit or walked to seek shelter, according to local witnesses.  

Haitian airline Sunrise Airways halted flights, a company spokesperson said, adding shootouts near the capital’s airport had put people in danger.  

Special police units were deployed throughout the city to respond to the violent events, a police spokesperson told a local radio station.  

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands. The battle we are waging will not only topple the Ariel [Henry] government. It is a battle that will change the whole system,” said former cop and gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, in a video shared on social media. 

Henry, who came to power after the assassination of the country’s last president in 2021, had pledged to step down by early February, but later said security must first be re-established in order to ensure free and fair elections. 

Gang violence has flared in Haiti since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The U.N. estimates the conflict killed close to 5,000 people last year and has driven some 300,000 from their homes. 

Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 troops and Benin another 2,000 to help national police fight armed gangs. 

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France to Enshrine Abortion Right in Constitution

France is poised to become the first country to inscribe the freedom for women to have abortions in its constitution. Lawmakers from the Senate and lower house will meet at Versailles Palace on March 4 for a final vote on the measure. Lisa Bryant reports.

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Odysseus Lunar Lander Makes History, Then Tips Over

A lunar landing more than 50 years in the making is a partial success. Plus, the U.S. says Russia may launch a nuclear weapon into orbit. The Kremlin calls it spin. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

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Artificial Intelligence Is Game Changer for Election Interference, FBI Warns

WASHINGTON — U.S. security officials are bracing for an onslaught of fast-paced influence operations, from a wide range of adversaries, aimed at impacting the country’s coming presidential election.

FBI Director Christopher Wray issued the latest warning about attempts to meddle with American voters as they decide whom to support when they go to the polls come November, telling a meeting of security professional Thursday that technologies such as artificial intelligence are already altering the threat landscape.

“This election cycle, the U.S. will face more adversaries moving at a faster pace and enabled by new technology,” Wray said.

“Advances in generative AI [artificial intelligence], for instance, are lowering the barrier to entry, making it easier for both more and less sophisticated foreign adversaries to engage in malign influence while making foreign influence efforts by players both old and new, more realistic and more difficult to detect,” he said.

The warning echoes concerns raised earlier in the week by a top lawmaker and by the White House, both singling out Russia.

“I worry that we are less prepared for foreign intervention in our elections in 2024 than we were in 2020,” said Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a cybersecurity conference on Tuesday.

On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” there is “plenty of reason to be concerned.”

“There is a history here in presidential elections by the Russian Federation, by its intelligence services,” Sullivan said.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia sought to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

But Russia has not been alone.

A declassified intelligence assessment looking at the 2022 midterm elections concluded with high to moderate confidence that Russia was joined by China and Iran in seeking to sway the outcome.

“China tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both U.S. political parties,” the report said.

“Tehran relied primarily on its intelligence services and Iran-based online influencers to conduct its covert operations,” it said. “Iran’s influence activities reflected its intent to exploit perceived social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions during this election cycle.”

The United States has also alleged other adversaries, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Lebanese Hezbollah, have sought to influence elections, as have allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The warnings from Wray and others are encountering pushback from some lawmakers and conservative commentators who view such statements as an attempt to resurrect what they call the “Russia hoax” — saying the narrative that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help former President Donald Trump win is without merit.

Warner, however, dismissed that view in response to a question from VOA on the sidelines of Tuesday’s security conference. “Anyone who doesn’t think the Russian intel services have and will continue to interfere in our elections … I wonder where they’re getting their information to start with,” he said.

Wray on Thursday suggested the list of countries and other foreign groups seeking to influence U.S. voters is set to expand. “AI is most useful for what I would call kind of mediocre bad guys and making them kind of like intermediate,” he said.

“The really sophisticated adversaries are using AI more just to increase the speed and scale of their efforts,” he said. “But we are coming towards a day very soon where what I would call the experts, the most sophisticated adversaries, are going to find ways to use AI to be even more elite.”

Some private cybersecurity firms also see the danger growing.

This past September, Microsoft warned that Beijing has developed a new artificial intelligence capability that can produce “eye-catching content” more likely to go viral compared to previous Chinese influence operations.

Others agree.

“Whether it’s robocalls, whether it’s fake videos — all those things really even back to 2022, weren’t as prevalent,” Trellix CEO Bryan Palma told VOA. “You weren’t going to get any high-quality type of deepfake video.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of that as we get closer to the election,” he said.

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US Lawmakers Slam Pentagon Chief Over Secrecy on Health

Washington — U.S. lawmakers sharply criticized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday over the failure to inform the White House about his hospitalization earlier this year for complications from cancer treatment.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed dismay over the secrecy, but the House Armed Services Committee hearing ultimately shed little light on why information had been withheld from other top officials.

“It’s totally unacceptable that it took three days to inform the president of the United States that the secretary of defense was in the hospital and not in control of the Pentagon,” Representative Mike Rogers, the committee’s Republican chairman, said during the hearing.

“Wars were raging in Ukraine and Israel, our ships were under fire in the Red Sea and our bases were bracing for attack in Syria and Iraq. But the commander-in-chief did not know that his secretary of defense was out of action,” Rogers said.

The committee’s ranking Democratic member, Representative Adam Smith, said “the lack of transparency” should not be repeated and that “we need clearer, more transparent information about what’s going on at the Pentagon.”

Austin insisted “there was never a break in command and control,” but said that “what we didn’t do well was a notification of senior leaders.”

The Pentagon chief repeated that he “never told anyone not to inform the president, White House or anyone else about my hospitalization,” admitting however that “we didn’t get this right.”

Austin, a 70-year-old career soldier, initially underwent minor surgery to treat the cancer on December 22, returning home the following day. 

But he was readmitted due to complications including nausea and severe pain on January 1.

The White House was not informed about Austin’s hospitalization until January 4, while Congress was not told until the following day, and President Joe Biden did not learn of the cancer diagnosis until January 9.

Various Republican lawmakers called for Austin — who apologized earlier this month for the secrecy surrounding his treatment — to be sacked, but Biden has stood by him.

The Pentagon conducted a 30-day review of the situation and released a summary on Monday that said privacy concerns contributed to the secrecy, but found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing or obfuscation

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Chad Opposition Leader Yaya Dillo Killed in Shooting, Prosecutor Says

N’DJAMENA — Chadian opposition politician Yaya Dillo was killed on Wednesday during an exchange of fire with security forces, state prosecutor Oumar Mahamat Kedelaye said Thursday.

Heavy gunfire was heard Wednesday in the capital N’Djamena near the headquarters of Dillo’s opposition party, a Reuters witness said. Several people had been killed in earlier clashes near Chad’s internal security agency building.

The violence flared amid tensions ahead of a presidential election set for May and June that could return the Central African state to constitutional rule three years after the military seized power.

Calm had returned to the capital by Thursday morning and residents were going back to work, though internet access, which was blocked a day earlier, had still not been restored, the Reuters witness said.

On Wednesday, the headquarters of the opposition Socialist Party Without Borders, led by Dillo, were cordoned off by security forces. But accounts of the incidents given by the government and the party differed.

A government statement said the security agency was attacked by representatives of the party, resulting in several deaths.

Detailing a separate incident, the government said a member of the party, Ahmed Torabi, had carried out an assassination attempt against the president of the Supreme Court, Samir Adam Annour. Torabi was arrested, it said.

The opposition party’s general secretary told Reuters the deaths near the security agency occurred when soldiers opened fire at a group of party members.

He said Torabi had been shot dead on Tuesday and his body was deposited at the agency’s headquarters. On Wednesday morning, party members and Torabi’s relatives went to look for his body at the agency and soldiers shot at them, which resulted in multiple deaths, the general secretary said.

Chad’s Supreme Court in December approved the vote on a new constitution that critics say could help cement the power of junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby.

Deby’s military government is one of several juntas currently ruling in West and Central Africa, where there have been eight coups since 2020, sparking concerns about a backslide from democracy in the region.

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Federal Reserve’s Preferred Inflation Gauge Picked Up Last Month in Sign of Still-Elevated Prices

WASHINGTON — An inflation gauge favored by the Federal Reserve increased in January, the latest sign that the slowdown in U.S. consumer price increases is occurring unevenly from month to month.

The government reported Thursday that prices rose 0.3% from December to January, up from 0.1% in the previous month. But in a more encouraging sign, prices were up just 2.4% from a year earlier, down from a 2.6% annual pace in December and the smallest such increase in nearly three years.

The year-over-year cooldown in inflation is sure to be welcomed by the White House as President Joe Biden seeks re-election. Still, even though average paychecks have outpaced inflation over the past year, many Americans remain frustrated that overall prices are still well above where they were before inflation erupted three years ago. That sentiment, evident in many public opinion polls, could pose a threat to Biden’s re-election bid.

Inflation, as measured by the Fed’s preferred gauge, fell steadily last year after having peaked at 7.1% in the summer of 2022. Supply chain snarls have eased, reducing costs of parts and raw materials, and a steady flow of job seekers has made it easier for employers to limit wage increases, one of the drivers of inflation. Still, inflation remains above the central bank’s 2% annual target.

Excluding volatile food and energy costs, prices rose 0.4% from December to January, up from 0.1% in the previous month. And compared with a year earlier, such so-called “core” prices rose 2.8%, down from 2.9% in December. Economists consider core prices a better gauge of the likely path of future inflation.

Some of January’s inflation reflects the fact that companies often raise prices in the first two months of the year, leaving January and February price data high compared with the rest of the year. But the costs of hospital and doctors’ services are also rising to offset the sizable pay raises commanded by nurses and other in-demand health care workers.

That trend could help keep inflation elevated in the coming months. But by early spring, most analysts expect prices to settle back to the milder pace of increases that occurred in the second half of 2023, when inflation eased to a 2% annual rate.

January’s uptick in inflation helps explain the concern expressed by many Fed officials, including Chair Jerome Powell, about potentially cutting interest rates too soon this year. One influential official, Christopher Waller of the Fed’s Board of Governors, said this month that he would want to see two more months of inflation data after January’s to determine whether prices were cooling sustainably toward the Fed’s target level.

Beginning in March 2022, the Fed raised its benchmark rate 11 times to attack the worst bout of inflation in 40 years. Those rate hikes have helped cool inflation drastically. But they have also made borrowing much more expensive for consumers and businesses. In particular, high loan rates have throttled sales in the economy’s crucial homebuying sector. Conversely, rate cuts by the Fed, whenever they happen, would eventually lead to lower borrowing costs across the economy.

Thursday’s inflation data mirrors figures released earlier this month that showed that the government’s more widely followed consumer price index also rose faster in January than it had in previous months. The Fed prefers the measure reported Thursday, in part because it accounts for changes in how people shop when inflation jumps — when, for example, consumers shift away from pricey national brands in favor of cheaper store brands.

Several Fed officials have said they’re optimistic that inflation will continue to fall back toward the Fed’s target level, with some downplaying the recent pickup in prices as a one-time jump.

“The path will continue to be bumpy, and we should not overreact to individual data readings,” Susan Collins, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said Wednesday. “I remain what I call a ‘realistic optimist’ in thinking that the economy is on a path to 2% inflation on a sustained basis while maintaining a healthy labor market.”

Some other officials sound more uncertain. Jeffrey Schmid, the new president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said this week that “when it comes to too-high inflation, I believe we are not out of the woods yet.”

Outside the Fed, most economists envision a steady, if fitful, slowdown of inflation in the coming months. Economists at Goldman Sachs project that core inflation, as measured by the Fed’s preferred gauge, will drop rapidly to just 2.2% by May — low enough for the Fed to initiate rate cuts in June.

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EU Moves to End Standoff With Poland Over Anti-EU Policies, Begins to Release Funds

BRUSSELS — The European Union took a major step in ending its standoff with member state Poland on Thursday by announcing it will begin releasing billions of euros to it that were frozen over the previous government’s policies that the bloc said amounted to widespread backsliding on fundamental democratic principles.

The move is an important reward for Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has sought relentlessly since taking office in December to overturn measures imposed by the previous conservative government. Beyond its political significance, it opens the way for up to 135 billion euros ($145 billion) in EU aid to go to Poland over the coming few years.

The decision cements a sea change in relations. Both sides had openly clashed after the stridently nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and implemented reforms that critics said placed Poland’s judiciary under political control. The EU threatened to suspend Poland’s EU voting rights and also blocked its access to EU funds.

“Today is a landmark day for Poland,” said EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis. “Thanks to its efforts to restore the rule of law, we are now able to unlock access” to a slew of funds that help EU nations recover from the COVID-19 crisis and help their economies rise to the standards of wealthier member nations.

Under complicated EU bookkeeping rules, Poland could receive over the next weeks the first 600 million euros ($650 million) in real cash from a 75 billion euro ($80 billion) aid pot that had been blocked. More funds will be transferred once Poland sends in outstanding paperwork from projects. A 6.3 billion euro ($6.8 billion) disbursement from a 60 billion euro ($65 billion) program to boost the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic downturn should also be released soon.

Tusk’s election victory last October was essential in achieving the change. The Commission has now acknowledged that sufficient efforts to resolve the issues have been made for it to start releasing the funds. If there is no full follow-through by Poland, restrictive measures could be reimposed.

EU Vice President Vera Jourova showed confidence in Tusk’s policies, saying, “Today we turn a page on the rule of law issues with Poland as we recognize the important strides made by the government.”

Poland’s pro-European coalition of three center-left parties led by Tusk won parliamentary elections on Oct. 15 and took over in December, succeeding the Law and Justice party that had ruled for eight years and introduced changes to the justice system, reproductive rights and the media that put Poland increasingly on a collision course with the EU.

The breakthrough in the standoff came after Polish Justice Minister Adam Bodnar presented an “action plan” to European officials which outlined draft legislation. EU officials also stressed that some of the proposals in the Polish plan can’t become law without the approval of President Andrzej Duda, who is a staunch ally of the Law and Justice party. His term runs until 2025.

Despite such domestic political challenges, the EU decided there was enough positive legal thrust to start releasing the funds.

The money will be coming from the EU’s Next Generation fund meant to help the bloc’s members recover from the COVID-19 pandemic downturn and also from a cohesion fund that supports infrastructure development.

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Blizzard Warning of up to 10 Feet of Snow in Sierra Could Make Travel ‘Dangerous to Impossible’

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ICC Awards $56 Million in Reparations to Thousands of Victims of Convicted Ugandan Rebel Commander 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Judges at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday granted reparations of more than 52 million euros ($56 million) to thousands of victims of a convicted commander in the shadowy Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army. 

The nearly 50,000 victims covered by the order included former child soldiers and children born as a result of rapes and forced pregnancies. 

Dominic Ongwen was convicted three years ago of 61 offenses, including murders, rapes, forced marriages and recruiting child soldiers in 2002-2005. An ICC appeals panel upheld his convictions and 25-year sentence in late 2022, setting the stage for an order for reparations. 

“Tens of thousands of individuals suffered tremendous harm due to the unimaginable atrocities committed” as rebel fighters led by Ongwen attacked four camps for displaced people in northern Uganda, said Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt. 

“Similarly, over 100 women and girls and thousands of children, boys and girls under the age of 15 suffered profound, multifaceted harm as a result of being kidnapped. Many were later subjected to sexual and gender based crimes and/or forced to serve as LRA soldiers, being kept in captivity with cruel methods of physical and psychological coercion,” he added. 

Ongwen was not in court for the reparations hearing. While he is considered liable for the reparations, the court ruled that he is indigent and said the reparations will be paid by a trust fund for victims set up by the court’s member states. 

Schmitt urged “states, organizations, corporations and private individuals to support the trust funds for victims’ mission and efforts and contribute to its fundraising activities.” 

He said victims would each receive 750 euros ($812) as a “symbolic award” while other reparations would come in the form of community-based rehabilitation programs. 

Evidence at Ongwen’s trial established that female civilians captured by the LRA were turned into sex slaves and wives for fighters. The LRA made children into soldiers. Men, women and children were murdered in attacks on camps for internally displaced people. 

“The chamber concludes that the direct victims of the attacks, the direct victims of sexual and gender based crimes and the children born out of those crimes, as well as the former child soldiers, suffered serious and long-lasting physical, moral and material harm,” Schmitt said. 

The LRA began its attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when one of the court’s most-wanted fugitives, Joseph Kony, sought to overthrow the government. After being pushed out of Uganda, the militia terrorized villages in Congo, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan. 

Ongwen was among those abducted by the militia led by Kony. As a 9-year-old boy, he was transformed into a child soldier and later a senior commander responsible for attacks on camps for displaced civilians in northern Uganda in the early 2000s.

Defense lawyers portrayed him as a victim of LRA atrocities. But the judge who presided over his trial called Ongwen “a fully responsible adult” when he committed his crimes. 

Activists welcomed his convictions for offenses against women, which included rape, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery. 

Kony, whose whereabouts are unknown, faces 36 charges, including murder, torture, rape, persecution and enslavement. Prosecutors are seeking to hold a hearing into the evidence against him at the court in Kony’s absence. 

The LRA leader was thrust into the global spotlight in 2012 when a video about his crimes went viral. Despite the attention and international efforts to capture him, he remains at large. 

ICC cases against three other LRA leaders were terminated after confirmation that they had died before they could be arrested. 

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1 Dead, 5 Injured in Norway Helicopter Crash

OSLO, Norway — One person died and five were injured when a helicopter crash-landed in the ocean off western Norway, police said on Thursday, leading to a temporary halt in transport to and from the country’s offshore oil and gas platforms.

The Sikorsky S-92 aircraft operated by Bristow Norway was on a search and rescue training mission on Wednesday when the accident occurred, officials have said.

The six crew members were all hoisted from the sea by rescue workers, but one was later declared dead in hospital, police said in a statement.

One of the surviving crew members was in a critical condition on Thursday and one was severely injured while the remaining three suffered lighter injuries, the hospital treating them said in an update on social media platform X.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known.

“We have sent crash inspectors to Stavanger and Bergen to investigate the accident,” Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority head William Bertheussen told Reuters.

The two cities are the busiest hubs for Norway’s extensive oil and gas industry, which produces around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Bristow Group said in a statement it was fully cooperating with authorities responding to the incident and that the company was collecting relevant information.

Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky, which manufactured the helicopter, said on Wednesday that safety was its top priority and that it stood ready to support the investigation.

Energy group Equinor said the helicopter was a search and rescue aircraft normally serving platforms at the company’s Oseberg oil and gas field in the North Sea.

“We have confidence both in the type of helicopter and in the operators,” Equinor CEO Anders Opedal told public broadcaster NRK.

Still, Equinor halted all regular helicopter flights to its oil and gas platforms in Norway out of consideration for those affected and to get an overview of the situation.

“The company aims to get the helicopters back to normal operation quickly and is now making the necessary preparations to achieve this safely,” the company said in a statement.

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Biden Deemed ‘Healthy, Active, Robust’ During Annual Physical Exam

washington — U.S. President Joe Biden’s is a “healthy, active, robust 81-year-old male who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency,” his physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, said in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday, following Biden’s annual physical examination. 

“The president feels well, and this year’s physical identified no new concerns. He continues to be fit for duty and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations,” O’Connor said following Biden’s visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, earlier Wednesday.  

The checkup included consultations with optometry, dentistry, orthopedics, physical therapy, neurology, sleep medicine, cardiology, radiology and dermatology specialists, O’Connor said.  

It’s Biden’s third physical since taking office, amid concerns about his age as he seeks a second term.  

“They think I look too young,” Biden joked to reporters at the White House after his checkup. “There is nothing different than last year,” he said.

According to the summary, Biden is currently being treated for several conditions, including obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux, seasonal allergies, arthritis and sensory peripheral neuropathy of the feet. He also has atrial fibrillation with normal ventricular response, a type of asymptomatic irregularity of the heartbeat.  

His doctor pronounced his conditions as “stable and well-controlled,” with “three common prescription medications and three common over-the-counter medications.”  

The symptoms were similar to those described in Biden’s 2023 physical exam report that noted the president’s “stiff gait,” due to “a combination of significant spinal arthritis, mild post-fracture foot arthritis and a mild sensory peripheral neuropathy of the feet,” and “occasional symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux,” that made him have to clear his throat often.     

President didn’t undergo cognitive test 

Recent events have highlighted Biden’s potential age-related issues, including the president being described in a special counsel report as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”      

In pushing back on reporters’ questions about his age, Biden insisted that his “memory is fine” but shortly after mistakenly referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as the president of Mexico. That and two other mistaken references to world leaders’ names in recent weeks fueled further attacks by his rivals.     

Responding to reporters’ questions during her briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden did not undergo a cognitive test as part of his physical because the president’s physician, “doesn’t believe that he needs one.” 

As president, Biden passes a cognitive test “every day,” Jean-Pierre underscored. 

A poll by the George Washington University shows 35% of respondents say Biden was in good enough physical health to serve effectively as president, and 38% said he has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president.  

This is lower that what respondents say about the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, who is four years younger. For Trump, the numbers are 54% and 46%, respectively. 

“These figures indicate that this is a big problem for Biden,” Todd Belt, professor of politics at George Washington University, told VOA. “The campaign has changed course to attack Trump on his vulnerabilities on the mental soundness issue.” 

Biden did exactly that during an appearance on a late-night television show earlier this week, by referencing a video in which Trump appeared to forget his wife’s name.  

Americans concerned about Biden’s age

Trump was 70 when he took office in 2017, which made him the oldest American president to be inaugurated until Biden broke his record at 78 in 2021. The former president has also made blunders, including praising Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for his leadership of Turkey, and confusing his Republican rival, Nikki Haley, with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.   

A February ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted after the release of the special counsel report indicated concerns among 59% of Americans regarding the age and capability for a second term for both candidates, although more Americans are worried about Biden compared with Trump, said Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs.   

“Age is an Achilles’ heel, is an anchor for Biden,” Young told VOA. “It was four years ago. Without a doubt, it will be this year.”   

Though not publicly announced in advance, the timing of Biden’s physical was anticipated, given the increasing focus on his age and health in the context of his reelection campaign ahead of the November election. 

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Asylum-Seekers Find Shelter at Washington State Church 

Tukwila, Washington — Though the number of migrants crossing daily into the United States has fallen since December, local communities are still scrambling to provide them with resources.

In the Pacific Northwest, Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Washington, has become a shelter for hundreds of asylum-seekers from Africa and Latin America.

At the church entrance is a hum of conversations in Portuguese, French and Spanish, as asylum-seekers from countries such as Angola, Congo and Venezuela gather to discuss their immigration claims.

Eurice, a bespectacled woman in her 50s, came from Venezuela. She asked that her last name not be used.

“I don’t want to be a burden to the United States,” she said. “I didn’t come here for a dream. Because of my work at the Colombian consulate, I was labeled a traitor. I’ve worked all my life, and instead of a peaceful retirement, I had to flee my country, walking through the jungle, crossing seven countries.”

She said she is grateful to find shelter at this church.

“I thank God and the lady pastor for providing a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and a plate of food. I am blessed already,” she said.

Pastor Jan Bolerjack said that over the past year, Riverton has helped find shelter, food and basic necessities for about 1,000 asylum-seekers of various ages, including pregnant women and toddlers. Some of them arrived on their own. Others were brought in by the police.

“The police department in Seattle found them on the streets in tents and realized they were a different population from our usual homeless individuals,” Bolerjack told VOA. “And so, they started bringing them here. We went from zero to 100 by March 2023, and then 400 by July. In October, the mayor of Tukwila declared a humanitarian emergency here. And this is where we are now — continuing with this humanitarian emergency.”

Unlike refugees who are eligible for resettlement services, asylum-seekers are unable to work legally before their work permit application is approved in a process that may last many months.

Bolerjack said her church has always had an open door for the most vulnerable members of the community, but with limited resources, staff and volunteers are overwhelmed.

“We have to provide everything, from food to laundry to bathrooms, showers, tents, sleeping bags, mattresses. Everything has to come from our friends and sources in the neighborhood,” she explained, walking through the church hall where piles of donated mattresses, suitcases and bags line the walls, and past a tiny kitchen, where several young African women are cooking, and through an area where volunteers sort donated clothes.

“Somehow, this place has been advertised across the country and at the border as the place to go,” Bolerjack explained. “And you know, I can take great pride in that. And yet, I’m kind of embarrassed when they arrive after a long, traumatic journey and we have to say, ‘You have to sleep in a wet, soggy tent.'”

In winter, when temperatures in the area dropped below zero, hundreds of asylum-seekers were temporarily moved from tents to local hotels. Some refused to return to the encampment, asking lawmakers for help.

State Representative Mia Gregerson is working to improve the state’s response to the crisis with legislation to better coordinate migrant services. Speaking with VOA at her office in the state capital, Olympia, she said that despite Tukwila’s tradition of welcoming newcomers, the community of fewer than 22,000 people shouldn’t be pushed to shoulder the crisis on its own.

“I think they’re really rolling up their sleeves well and making a go of it,” Gregerson said. “But there is a lot of uncertainty. What are we going to do when the funds run out?”

She said processing asylum cases is often complicated by different immigration statuses within a family. The bill she introduced with 18 co-sponsors seeks to empower the state’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.


“The idea is that the office is able to be nimble and utilize resources quickly to not only put them into the system for legal advice that’s correct and factual, or quickly get them the education resources, transportation needs, and housing vouchers,” Gregerson said. “And we need to maintain that contact with them so we can help them through the system. Otherwise, they may fall victim to other types of issues.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s current budget includes $5 million in new funding for the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance to expand support services for newly arriving people who do not qualify for federal refugee resettlement program services. A separate request for $3.4 million is meant to help provide transitional and long-term housing support to asylum-seekers in the county around Seattle.

Volunteers at Riverton help asylum-seekers complete the required paperwork in English. In the past year, Bolerjack said just one person won their asylum case and obtained a work permit.

That has not diminished the optimism of Jeremiah Lefau, who said he left Angola with his wife and three children in December 2022 because of insecurity in his country. They lived at Riverton for four months before they were approved for family shelter. The children are enrolled in local schools along with more than 100 young asylum-seekers. Lefau is taking English classes and volunteers at the church.

“I feel good about the future,” he said. “Now, we need to help others as the church helped us.”

Eurice, from Venezuela, hopes to return to her country someday.

“My family is still there. I miss them,” she said. “I hope to stay here as long as necessary to be safe, and I thank the United States for this opportunity they are giving us. But I have faith that one day my country will be able to repair itself so I can return.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is advancing measures making it more challenging for asylum-seekers to stay in the U.S.

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Planned Transnational Highway Would Connect 5 African Nations

West African nations are pushing for the construction of a major highway network connecting five countries from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria. The African Development Bank says the project will be an economic engine for all the countries involved. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

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Ghana Parliament Passes Stringent Anti-LGBTQ Law

ACCRA, Ghana — Ghana’s parliament passed legislation Wednesday that intensifies a crackdown on the rights of LGBTQ people and those promoting lesbian, gay or other non-conventional sexual or gender identities in the West African country.

Gay sex was already punishable by up to three years in prison. The bill now also imposes a prison sentence of up to five years for the “willful promotion, sponsorship, or support of LGBTQ+ activities.”

The bill is one of the harshest of its kind in Africa.

“My heart is broken and devastated at the moment, that’s all I can say for now” Angel Maxine, Ghana’s first openly transgender musician and LGBTQI+ activist, told Reuters, adding “My pronouns are she/ her/ hers.”

A coalition of Christian, Muslim, and Ghanaian traditional leaders sponsored the legislation.

Following the vote in parliament, the bill will be presented to President Nana Akufo-Addo after which he has seven days to assent or refuse to assent, according to Ghana’s constitution.

If he assents, the bill becomes law. Akufo-Addo, had avoided the heated debate over the bill, but said he’ll react once it is voted by parliament.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS, said in a statement that the bill would affect everyone if it became law, adding that punitive laws as embodied by the bill, are a barrier to ending AIDS and ultimately undermine everyone’s health.

“It will exacerbate fear and hatred, could incite violence against fellow Ghanaian citizens, and will negatively impact on free speech, freedom of movement and freedom of association,” Byanyima said in the statement.

“If it becomes law, it will obstruct access to life-saving services, undercut social protection, and jeopardize Ghana’s development success,” she said. 

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Media, Spy Agencies Await UK Court’s WikiLeaks Ruling

The eyes of free press advocates and U.S. intelligence officials are on London, where the High Court is set to rule on the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Washington wants him extradited to face 18 charges tied to the hacking and theft of classified material. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.

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Judge Refuses to Halt Trump’s $454 Million Fraud Penalty During Appeal

New York — A New York appellate judge on Wednesday refused to halt collection of Donald Trump’s $454 million civil fraud penalty while he appeals, rejecting the former president’s request that he be allowed to post a bond covering a fraction of what he owes.

Judge Anil Singh of the state’s midlevel appeals court ruled that Trump must post a bond covering the full amount in order to stop enforcement of the judgment. Singh did grant some of Trump’s requests, including pausing a three-year ban on him seeking loans from New York banks, which could help him secure the necessary bond.

Trump’s lawyers told the appellate court earlier Wednesday that Trump was prepared to post a $100 million bond, arguing that the lending ban in the Feb. 16 verdict made it impossible for him to secure a bond for the full amount.

Trump’s lawyers floated the smaller bond offer in court papers as they sought an order from the appellate court preventing New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office from enforcing the judgment while his appeal plays out. Singh ruled that Trump needs to post the full amount, which would pause collection automatically.

In all, the Republican presidential candidate and his co-defendants owe more than $465 million to the state. They have until March 25 to secure a stay, a legal mechanism pausing collection while he appeals, or they’ll be forced to pay the monetary penalty or risk having some of their assets seized.

“The exorbitant and punitive amount of the judgment coupled with an unlawful and unconstitutional blanket prohibition on lending transactions would make it impossible to secure and post a complete bond,” Trump lawyers Clifford Robert, Alina Habba and Michael Farina wrote in their request.

James’ office opposed Trump’s plan, saying his lawyers have all but conceded he has “insufficient liquid assets to satisfy the judgment.”

“These are precisely the circumstances for which a full bond or deposit is necessary,” Senior Assistant Solicitor General Dennis Fan wrote, saying Trump’s offer would leave James’ office and the state “with substantial shortfalls” if the verdict is upheld.

“A prevailing plaintiff is entitled to have her award secured, and defendants have never demonstrated that Mr. Trump’s liquid assets could satisfy the full amount of the judgment,” Fan wrote.

James, a Democrat, has said that she will seek to seize some of Trump’s assets if he’s unable to pay the judgment.

Judge Arthur Engoron found that Trump, his company and top executives, including his sons Eric and Donald Jr., schemed for years to deceive banks and insurers by inflating his wealth on financial statements used to secure loans and make deals.

Among other penalties, the judge put strict limitations on the ability of Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, to do business. Paperwork making the judgment official was filed on February 23. That started a 30-day window for Trump to pay up or file an appeal and seek a stay.

Trump filed his appeal on Monday. His lawyers are asking the Appellate Division of the state’s trial court to decide whether Engoron “committed errors of law and/or fact” and whether he abused his discretion or “acted in excess” of his jurisdiction.

Trump lawyers argued that Trump’s vast real estate assets and oversight mandated by Engoron’s ruling, including supervision of his company by an independent monitor, “would alone be sufficient to adequately secure any judgment affirmed.”

The $100 million bond, they said, “would simply serve as further security.”

Trump maintains that he is worth several billion dollars and testified last year that he had about $400 million in cash, in addition to properties and other investments.

In all, Trump has at least $543.4 million in personal legal liabilities from Engoron’s ruling and two other civil court judgments in the last year.

In January, a jury ordered Trump to pay $83.3 million to writer E. Jean Carroll for defaming her after she accused him in 2019 of sexually assaulting her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s. That’s on top of the $5 million a jury awarded Carroll in a related trial last year.

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